TORONTO — After colorfully lauding his Mariners for their resiliency and their ability to rally from a seven-run deficit in Saturday's preposterous 10-9 win over the Blue Jays, and just before Champagne would explode all over the visitors' clubhouse of the Rogers Centre to celebrate a wild-card series victory, manager Scott Servais briefly mentioned the road ahead.
"Next stop, y'all know where we are going," he said. "It ain't going to be easy."
Notice, he didn't say who they were playing.
As a few grumbled and booed at the thought their upcoming opponent, others screamed, "We got it!"
After they turned out the lights in Toronto when the party was over, the Mariners began thinking about the upcoming American League Division Series against their American League West nemesis — the Houston Astros.
It had to be this way.
For the Mariners to truly become the organization they aspire to be in terms of consistency in success and reputation, unseating the Astros, a team they dislike to the point of loathing, by either beating them out of the American League West title or bouncing them from the postseason, is a necessary rite of passage.
In the past the two seasons of interviews, shortstop J.P. Crawford rarely if ever uses the word Astros or mentions players by name when asked. It's usually "that team" or "that guy," or often just providing an answer about something else.
It's something that Kyle Seager did on multiple occasions when the subject of the Astros came up. Other players have followed the trend.
Houston's consistent success — five of the last six American League West titles and the 2017 World Series title — was a reason the Mariners went into the "step-back" rebuild after the 2018 season. They believed they couldn't dethrone Houston with an aging roster. The goal was to be a consistent division contender.
"They've got a fragile amount of time," chairman John Stanton said of the goal of the rebuild before the 2019 season. "I think we will be in great position to win the West. I really don't want to just make the wild card and have our season depend on one arm. I want to win the West and have a series where we are the home team for it and it starts out in Seattle. Our fate won't be determined by one game. You hope to play three series and end up in a seven-game series."
As for the dislike ...
There is the sign-stealing, trash can-banging scandal from 2017 and other veiled references from Mariners players about Houston stealing signs and finding ways to gain advantages.
And let's not forget a few of the recent dust-ups and weird history between the two teams.
There was the game July 26 of last season when Dylan Moore hit a grand slam off Brooks Raley to cap an improbable comeback. Crawford stepped into the box and watched two pitches well inside called for balls before another hit him in the upper shoulder, leading to some jawing back and forth led by Servais and Astros first-base coach Omar Lopez. Raley was ejected.
The dislike carried into this season in a game June 6 in Houston.
With two outs in the top of the ninth inning and the Mariners leading 5-4, Hector Neris fired a fastball behind the back of Ty France, grazing his jersey. But France didn't hear home-plate umpire Chris Guccione say he was hit by the pitch.
France turned to the dugout to tell Servais to review the play, by putting his hand cupped to the ear of his helmet. In MLB, managers request a replay review by cupping both hands to their ears to mimic headphones, which the umpires use to communicate with the replay office. The Astros bench seemed to think he was demanding retaliation in the head. They started jawing at the Mariners dugout and Servais screamed back, protecting his player.
"I didn't hear the umpire say that it got me," France told reporters. "So I turned and I told [the dugout] to check."
France had a brief conversation with Guccione and "then I looked up and their dugout was running at me."
Benches cleared with plenty of jawing and pushing with no punches being thrown. Servais and Lopez resumed their conversation from a year prior. Lopez was ejected for continuing to jaw from the dugout.
"They threw a ball behind Ty France," Servais said postgame. "Pretty clear. All I know is that our best hitter is in there, there are two outs in the ninth and they throw the first pitch behind him? Pretty obvious."
The intensity ratcheted up moments later when Julio Rodriguez, who is friends with Neris and played mediator during the dust-up, crushed a 2-1 fastball into the right-field seats for a two-run homer. Rodriguez screamed and yelled as he rounded the bases while the Astros stared him down from the dugout.
"At the end of the day, he's on the other team," Rodriguez told MLB.com. "I play for the Mariners, and we've got to compete. I definitely was fired up. I never really talk or yell during my homers, but given the situation, I felt like I needed to and I kind of let all my emotions go out."
After walking Crawford, Neris fired a fastball behind the head of Eugenio Suarez, who looked perplexed as to what the reliever was doing. Neris and Astros manager Dusty Baker were ejected.
"It appears there's some bad blood brewing, even from last year," Baker said.
It's unlikely there will be any extracurricular activities on the field during the postseason. But the mutual dislike remains.
For Houston, the Mariners are like the pesky little brother that wants everything but has earned nothing. The Astros have dominated Seattle for the better part of the past eight seasons, owning them at Minute Maid Park.
After that emotional win June 6 — the opener of the three-game series — the Mariners lost the following day but prevailed 6-3 in the finale for their first series win at Minute Maid Park since September 2018. They had beaten Houston in two three-game series at T-Mobile Park earlier in the year and were 6-6 for the season.
The Astros beat the Mariners in six of their final seven meetings this season to finish with a 12-7 season record.
Since the 2015 season, the Mariners have won just one season series vs. Houston. The 2018 Mariners under Servais went 10-9 vs. the Astros. That season, the Mariners were 7-2 at Minute Maid Park. It's the only time they've had a winning record during that span. Since that 2018 season, they are 7-30 playing in Houston, winning three each of the past two seasons.
"We've played some crazy games down there," Servais said. "They've had our number for a few years. We played a little bit better at times this year. They're really good. We understand that. We are really good. We respect everybody in the game. I know I certainly do. I know how hard this is. But our club fears no one. I truly believe that."
Mariners record vs. Astros overall (Minute Maid Park)
* 2022 — 7-12 (3-7)
* 2021 — 8-11 (3-7)
* 2020 — 3-7 (1-6)
* 2019 — 1-18 (0-10)
* 2018 — 10-9 (7-2)
* 2017 — 5-14 (3-7)
* 2016 — 8-11 (4-6)
* 2015 — 7-12 (3-7)