Was it the brawl? Or the rookie sensation? How the Mariners became the hottest team in baseball

by Daryn Albert - How Seattle went from a disappointing start to coming out of the All-Star break with a 14-game win streak and a potential wild-card spot.

Was it the brawl? Or the rookie sensation? How the Seattle Mariners became the hottest team in baseball Ron Jenkins / Getty Images 7:00 AM ET David SchoenfieldESPN Senior Writer Close Covers MLB for ESPN.com Former deputy editor of Page 2 Been with ESPN.com since 1995 It wasn't the brawl. It feels like it could have been. The brawl fits into the timeline of the Seattle Mariners ' sudden turnaround from afterthought to wild-card contender, a surge that includes the team's current 14-game win streak -- the longest ever for a team heading into the All-Star break and one short of the franchise record set in 2001. The Mariners' bench-clearing brawl with the Los Angeles Angels took place on June 26, and calling it epic might be a bit of hyperbole, but it certainly was one of the more contentious baseball fights in recent years, eventually resulting in 12 suspensions , including 10 games for Angels manager Phil Nevin. The Mariners actually lost that day, however, falling to 34-40, seven games out of the final wild-card spot. They lost the next day as well, as the Baltimore Orioles hammered them 9-2 in Seattle. Things were bleak. The team was struggling, injuries had decimated the lineup, and Seattle was about to lose Jesse Winker , J.P. Crawford and even Julio Rodriguez for one game each due to brawl fallout. A season of promise -- a season in which the Mariners were aiming for their first postseason trip since that record-breaking 2001 season -- was on the verge of falling apart. Instead, they've gone 17-1 since then and come out of the All-Star break holding the second wild-card position (and 67.7% playoff odds), squeezed between the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays . But, no, don't credit the brawl. When asked if it was indeed a reason for the Mariners' winning streak, rookie phenom Rodriguez offered up one of his million-dollar smiles and said, "It might be. I don't know." Editor's Picks From the All-Star Game to Cooperstown? Hall of Fame tiers for every 2022 MLB All-Star 5d Bradford Doolittle 2 Related "It definitely fired the guys up, but I wouldn't say that's attributed to it," All-Star first baseman Ty France said during festivities at Dodger Stadium this past week. "You never want to see those things happen; it's not baseball. But sometimes they do. I guess you can say it sparked us, but that's not our fuel." Really, though, the turnaround began before the brawl, when the Mariners had won five in a row. That puts the Mariners on a 22-3 run since June 21, the best 25-game stretch in the majors since Cleveland went on that remarkable 22-game winning streak in 2017. France said the tipping point was a series sweep at home by the Angels that dropped Seattle's record to 29-39 (at which point their playoff odds were at 6%). "We kind of took a step backward and realized it's getting later in the season and we gotta get going," France said. "We had such high expectations coming into this season." Indeed, the Mariners, coming off a 90-win season, signed Cy Young winner Robbie Ray and traded for 2021 All-Stars Winker, Adam Frazier and slugger Eugenio Suarez in the offseason. Expectations were the highest they'd been in Seattle since perhaps 2010, when ESPN The Magazine's baseball preview issue put the Mariners on the cover and declared, "OUTS ARE IN -- AND SO ARE THE MARINERS." The Mariners promptly lost 101 games that season. Welcome to Mariners baseball, where misery usually ends up trumping everything else. That appeared to be the case in late June. Early on, France had carried the offense, hitting .347 through the end of May -- a time in which Winker was struggling, sophomore outfielder Jarred Kelenic earned a demotion back to Triple-A and Mitch Haniger landed on the injured list. Then, on June 23, France got tangled up with A's baserunner Sheldon Neuse in a play at first base, and the team's best hitter suffered what appeared to be a horrific injury. "I thought I blew out everything in my arm -- shoulder, elbow," France said. "The pain was in such a specific spot and the first thing I thought of was what happened to Max Muncy last year and how much time he had to miss for it." First-half grades for all 30 MLB teams Which teams have excelled and which have failed to meet expectations in the first half of the 162-game season? Handing out everything from an A-plus to an F France would end up missing only 12 games with an elbow strain -- and with the All-Star on the injured list, the Mariners started heating up. France returned for a four-game series at home against the Blue Jays -- a wild, wacky, improbable four games that will be remembered if this season does end up with a playoff berth. "That whole series, there was a lot of good baseball that was played, but there were some weird things that happened," France said. The series highlights are worth reviewing: In the first game, Dylan Moore hit a home run that Jays left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr . basically threw over the left-field fence . The Mariners won the second game 5-2 on Suarez's three-run homer in the 11th inning. Former Blue Jays reliever Ryan Borucki , acquired in a trade in early June, tossed two scoreless innings for the win, escaping the "ghost runner" jam both times. Blue Jays All-Star Alek Manoah and Ray locked up in a pitchers' duel in the third game, before Carlos Santana won it with a two-run homer in the seventh for a 2-1 Seattle victory. Then came the wild fourth game. The Blue Jays were up 4-1, but the Mariners scored twice in the fifth -- only because on a potential inning-ending double play, the relay throw literally went through the webbing of Vladimir Guerrero Jr .'s glove at first base. They scored another run thanks to a hit batter, wild pitch, infield single off the pitcher's glove and sac fly. They won it 6-5 on Santana's two-run homer in the eighth -- after Crawford got on base when Blue Jays rookie catcher Gabriel Moreno dropped a pop fly. For once, everything was going Seattle's way. That four-game series against the Blue Jays improved the Mariners' record from 41-42 to 45-42, and they followed with six more wins against the Washington Nationals and Texas Rangers heading into the All-Star break. "We got to the point where we could trust each other, that we got each other's backs," Rodriguez said. "When we realized that, we started to relax and play more freely." Rodriguez has had his teammates backs plenty of times throughout the season and especially during this 25-game stretch in which he's hit .301/.365/.634 with eight home runs and 22 RBIs. He's tied for fourth in the majors in RBIs since June 19. The 25-game stretch began with a victory against the A's in which Rodriguez went 3-for-4 with a home run and two runs scored. In a 2-1 victory over Oakland, it was Rodriguez who drove in both runs with a home run and double. In an 8-3 win over the Rangers, Rodriguez provided the exclamation point with the first grand slam of his career . MLB trade season is here! The deadline is less than a month away. Which players could finish the season on a different team? One player all 30 MLB teams should trade for (or away) Passan: 148 names to know What should your team do? "Honestly, not to make excuses, the first month and a half our schedule was really tough," France said. "We had three East Coast trips in a row. We travel more than any team in the league. Once we got those out of the way and were able to settle in and start playing our baseball, it makes a huge difference -- the rest, the recovery, all that stuff." The schedule coming out of the break will be another difficult test: 10 of the first 13 games are against the Houston Astros and New York Yankees . The Mariners will be welcomed back with a sellout crowd for Friday's game against Houston. Many of those fans will be wearing their Rodriguez All-Star jerseys. When the jerseys went on sale at the Mariners team store last Saturday morning, the line snaked out of the building; the jerseys sold out in 53 minutes. Suddenly, there is a baseball buzz in Seattle. "It's been a long drought. The people of Seattle deserve it," said Mariners legend Ken Griffey Jr., who was in Los Angeles for the Home Run Derby. He compared this team to the 1995 Mariners team, the one that rallied from 13 games out to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. "Just go out there and believe," he said. "You gotta have a lot of luck. That's the whole thing. People don't look at it that way, but you gotta have some luck through the course of the season to make it." Now they have to maintain the momentum they had heading into the break. "It's mixed emotions," France said. "We're playing really good baseball right now, but at the same time, it will be nice for the guys to have a reset. We've been playing a lot of hard baseball, our bullpen's a little banged up, so it will be good for the guys to get a break." After that initial 13-game stretch, however, the schedule does lighten up and the Mariners actually have one of the easiest second-half schedules in the majors -- a lot of games against the Oakland Athletics , Angels and Rangers. They're also starting to get healthier. Kyle Lewis, who has been out since May 28 with a concussion, will be activated on Friday. Haniger, who hit 39 home runs last season, will finally begin a rehab assignment as well. Those two have played just 13 games for the Mariners and, with Kelenic's struggles thrown in, forced manager Scott Servais to scramble in the outfield, aside from Rodriguez. As France said, they've needed contributions from everybody. Their best players have been Rodriguez and France -- a highly touted rookie and a player the Padres essentially gave away a couple a year ago. "Without that trade, who knows where my baseball career would be?" France said. And he isn't the only addition that has really clicked for Seattle. The State of the Starting Pitcher "It's a dying breed. And it sucks." Jeff Passan goes inside the decline of the starting pitcher -- and what it means for baseball's future. Story ยป Closer Paul Sewald was let go by the New York Mets and signed with the Mariners. General manager Jerry Dipoto signed starter Chris Flexen after he pitched in Korea in 2020. Santana, who was acquired from the Kansas City Royals as injuries mounted, has delivered two late-game, go-ahead home runs. Reliever Andres Munoz , part of the France trade, throws 100 mph and has 57 strikeouts in 37 innings. Logan Gilbert , the team's first-round draft pick in 2018, is 10-3 with a 2.76 ERA, while Ray has been red hot with a 1.36 ERA over his past seven starts. There's a running joke among longtime Mariners fans about the team's 1984 season slogan: "Anything Can Happen." The Mariners themselves will sometimes reference the slogan. It's usually invoked when they get off to a surprising start or during last year's "fun differential" season, when they won 90 games despite getting outscored by 51 runs. For the first time in a long time, riding this 14-game winning streak, with a roster that's deeper than it's been in decades, with a rising superstar to build around, that slogan isn't just a plea. It feels more like a statement. Anything can happen.