Eight months ago, there was no hope. When Lloyd McClendon took the Mariners’ field manager job last November, he became their seventh skipper in eight years, and the usual optimism of a new hire yielded to frustration over the franchise’s repeated failures.
McClendon didn’t expect rose petals to be thrown at his feet, but he didn’t expect Day One speculation about his job security, either. He caught onto the vibe quickly: The Mariners were no good, and it didn’t matter who managed them.
McClendon shook his head. How could any franchise be perceived as so hopeless?
“My God, I’ve never seen anything like it,” McClendon recalled. “The Mariners were the worst thing that ever (expletive) lived when I got here. I couldn’t believe it.”
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Now, in mid-July, the Mariners are a team that has arrived at the All-Star Game break with a 51-44 record and the current status of being in position to make the playoffs.
They just won two of three games in a series against the Oakland Athletics, the best team in baseball. It was a good, clean series, too, full of strong performances from elite pitchers and clutch hits and late-game pressure and good energy from the 98,119 fans who came to Safeco Field for the three games.
The Mariners didn’t just pass this early-season exam. They made the city turn up its enthusiasm a few notches. With 67 games remaining, it’s still too early to make any definitive declarations, except for one.
Now, there is hope. Legitimate hope.
The Mariners have a real chance to end their 13-year playoff drought. If the season ended today, they would be the second wild card in the American League. They are 2½ games ahead of Kansas City and Toronto for that last playoff spot. They are still eight games behind Oakland in the AL West division, but if they continue to play so well against the upper echelon of baseball (25-14 record against teams above .500, 15-10 against projected playoff teams), the deficit isn’t insurmountable.
This midsummer exam against the A’s should’ve told the Mariners two things: 1. With their pitching, they can compete with anyone, anywhere, at any point in the season. 2. When on the field with a team as complete as Oakland, it’s clear the Mariners still need to be active at the trade deadline to bridge the talent difference.
This was a weekend of empowerment. The fans should know the Mariners are too competitive to ignore. The Mariners should know they have too good a thing going to sit idle and not try to get a little better. Put the cynicism on hold.
It seems that, even during these hopeful times, every winning streak is greeted with guarded enthusiasm, and every losing streak becomes reason to expect a collapse. You have a short fuse with this team, and it’s only right to protect yourself after years of heartache.
But there is hope, at last.
“To think about where we’ve come from during my introductory news conference, and I think you guys would all agree, the negativity that was surrounding this club, the doubts, I think this organization has come quite far,” McClendon said before Sunday’s 4-1 loss to Oakland. “I think it’s nice for our fans. This weekend, the electricity, the amount of people in the ballpark, I certainly think this organization is headed in the right direction.”
McClendon laughs and says the biggest difference now is that the media has begun to get on board. When he talks about the negativity that greeted him, he pins it on the media, softening his remarks by saying, “I’m not trying to bash anybody.” But the public often criticizes the media for being too balanced on the Mariners, for not applying more pressure on the organization.
McClendon talks of walking through downtown to get to Safeco Field and hearing more and more positive feedback now. The skeptics wouldn’t dare approach McClendon, though. He has a kind demeanor, but he has this look that makes you understand that provoking him isn’t a wise decision.
There isn’t a fervor about the Mariners’ success just yet. But similar to the methodical manner in which the ballclub has improved, the belief in them is developing slowly but steadily. If general manager Jack Zduriencik could acquire a right-handed hitter with some pop, it would be even easier to believe the Mariners can sustain this start and stoke more passion.
“We’ve played good baseball,” pitcher Chris Young said. “I still think our best baseball is ahead of us. There’s still room for improvement.”
But with four days off now, the Mariners can rest and reflect on what they’ve accomplished so far. They’ve put themselves in position to play meaningful baseball late in the season. They still have to finish, which has been difficult for this franchise during their playoff drought.
But there is hope.
“Listen, I think if we continue to pitch the way we’re pitching, and if we stay healthy from an offensive standpoint, we’ve got as good a shot as anybody,” McClendon said. “Do we have challenges? Absolutely, we have challenges. We all know that. I know this: “When you can shut down other teams, it makes those challenges a little easier to climb. So far, our pitching’s been shutdown-type pitching, so we’ll see. We’ll see.”
For the first time in a while, you will watch, too. With expectations. With hope. And if the good times continue, you’ll do so without having to cover your eyes.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277
On Twitter @JerryBrewer