After scorching-hot August, the Seattle Mariners control their playoff hopes in September

Now atop the AL West, the Mariners face a daunting final month as they chase a division title

NEW YORK — Before his team’s second game against the New York Mets this weekend, Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais ran the stairs at Citi Field. It was a perfect, cloudless day in Queens, and Servais regularly spends early afternoons scaling empty bleachers at ballparks around the country.

On this particular day, he was doing so specifically because he hadn’t the day before, and in their first game against the Mets, the Mariners did something they haven’t had to deal with a whole lot lately: They lost.

On July 19, the Mariners were a game under .500. Nearly nine months before, they’d hosted Seattle’s first postseason game since 2001 — North American sports’ most infamous playoff drought ended with a wild-card berth. The 2022 Mariners were scrappy, sneaking into the postseason despite finishing 16 games back of the eventual champion Houston Astros, with the same record they’d had the year before, when they were left out of a smaller playoff field.

Then the young club with barely enough offense last year got off to a slow start this season, hosting the All-Star festivities while hovering around .500 and hurtling toward the trade deadline well outside the playoff picture — until they turned it around.

The best record in baseball since July 20 (30-10) took the Mariners not just into the wild-card picture but also through to the other side, from 10 games back of the Texas Rangers in the AL West to first place in the division, passing the Astros along the way. The Mariners had won 13 of their previous 15 when they arrived in New York and dropped the first game against a Mets team that had long since fallen out of contention.

And so, in an effort to get a little luck back on his team’s side, the skipper ran stairs.

A few hours later, the Mariners’ dynamic, magnetic star, Julio Rodríguez, looked for the barber who sometimes caters to players inside the clubhouse — because he has the kind of youthful confidence that doesn’t need luck. He had a 14-game hitting streak and hair that was noticeably longer than the close shave he has always sported, his scruff bordering on a full-blown beard and mustache.

“I’m letting it grow,” Rodríguez explained, “just to see how it looks.”

From afar, you might’ve thought it had something to do with the hitting streak. A little bit of a superstition since things had been going so well. But Rodríguez insisted that his routines are purely functional.

“I don’t like to rely on anything other than my preparation,” he said.

Which is why it was perfectly fine that he decided to keep the length on top but clean it up a little. He wasn’t at all worried that the follicular change might have ripple effects all the way to his slash line or even the standings. Right?

“I don’t want to become superstitious now!” he said. “Don’t put that in my head.”

That night, Rodríguez tripled in the third inning.

The truth is, a subtle mechanical change to streamline his batting stance is probably more responsible for Rodríguez’s recent success than anything happening on top of his head. Even when his streak ended after 15 games, Rodríguez led the American League in hits this season. After finishing the first half as a league-average player, he’s up to a 131 wRC+. In the second half of 2023, he has an OPS over 1.000, and with the defense he brings in center field, Rodríguez is second in the AL in fWAR.

He says now that he never worried it wouldn’t come together for him and the Mariners this season. “When you start having those thoughts, that’s when you lose,” Rodríguez said.

His manager provides a more nuanced perspective.

“He got frustrated,” Servais said. “Julio is probably more vocal than some of the other guys. After a game, you would hear loud outbursts in the clubhouse, and it was typically from Julio.”

That was before, though. Now, even after they dropped two of three to the Mets, Servais could only marvel at how far his team has come.

“It’s been a while since we lost a series,” he said. And he’s right: not since Aug. 13. Before that, you have to go back to July 19 — back to the turning point.

Since then, the Mariners’ lineup is first in team wRC+, second in slugging and third in stolen bases, home runs and batting average. Their pitching staff has the lowest ERA, fewest runs allowed, second-lowest WHIP and fifth-most strikeouts. This is the latest the Mariners have been in first place since 2001 — when they won 116 games en route to the ALCS.

The year after Rodríguez was born. The year before the drought began.

“You look back, and you’re grateful for the opportunity to play in that situation, especially since we hadn’t been in the playoffs in so long,” Mariners catcher Cal Raleigh said of the marathon, 18-inning game that ended Seattle’s playoff run last year. “But it just stings still, looking back. One swing of the bat in each of those games, and we could have won all three. It hurts, and I don’t think it’ll ever go away.”

Now tangled in a three-team divisional race, the Mariners know what they’re playing for: the chance to not just get back to the postseason but also come out on top and enjoy the spoils that come with doing so.

The Astros swept the Mariners in three games in the 2022 division series, the first two in Houston, the final a heartbreaker in Seattle. As the second wild-card team, the Mariners weren’t guaranteed to host anything. After two decades of waiting, Seattle fans could’ve watched the postseason come and go from afar. Instead, they got 18 innings during which only one player scored — and he played for the other team.

When it was over, and their team was eliminated, the fans stayed and chanted “Let’s go, Mariners!” anyway.

“It was really special,” Raleigh said. “It makes me want to win this division and want to have those home games to start off with. How fun it was, how great it was for the city and the fans, how loud and exciting.”

The Mariners finished this weekend with a one-game lead in the AL West and 27 games left to play. A quirk of the schedule means that what is certainly MLB’s best division this season will likely go down to the wire. The Mariners’ final 10 (!) games of the regular season are against the Rangers and the Astros.

There’ll be nowhere to look for luck. They’ll have to reach the mountaintop on their own.