After hitting rock bottom in Boston, the banged-up Mariners have bounced back and hit .500 again on Wednesday’s walkoff win. It was an impressive managerial feat to keep the club together during dark times.
It’s Mike Zunino, magically rejuvenated and raking with confidence that had seemed packed away for good.
It’s James Paxton, coming off the disabled list to add vitally needed stability and star power to a rotation that was being cobbled together with baling wire and wishful thinking.
It’s Danny Valencia, overcoming a sluggish start to provide the sort of production the Mariners envisioned when they turned over first base to him.
But when parceling out credit for the Mariners’ resurrection, from the stabilized bullpen to the rampaging bottom of the order, save some room for Scott Servais.
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The second-year manager has been dealt so many obstacles that it would have been easy to lose the team under an avalanche of negativity. But even when the outlook seemed the gloomiest, when the season was on the verge of slipping away, he somehow kept the clubhouse together.
Servais has always been a master of fostering a relaxed, fun atmosphere among his players, but that’s harder to pull off when the injuries, and losses, are mounting. When the Mariners capped a stretch of seven losses in eight games by getting shut out in Boston by a pitcher making his Fenway Park debut, Servais knew it was time for some tough love.
He called a team meeting after that game and did all the talking. He knew that even with a skeleton roster, the danger of finger-pointing always loomed. Victims of back-to-back shutouts, and scoring just five runs in a span of seven losses, he felt (or at least hoped) the team had hit rock bottom and needed a road map back toward the light.
“I kind of expressed where we were at that point, and there’s only one way to turn it around,’’ he said. “It was based on the guys in the room and their ability to pull together. There comes a point, even if you think you’re doing the best you can, do a little bit more for the guy next to you. That’s really what I tried to impress upon our guys. They’ve responded.”
After Wednesday’s rousing walkoff win over the Twins on Zunino’s two-out, two-run homer, the Mariners were back at .500. Not exactly cause for pennant fever in early June, but considering they had been eight games under .500 less than two weeks earlier, and considering the roster attrition they’ve endured, getting to the break-even point again was an accomplishment.
Not that Servais was celebrating the numeric milestone prior to Thursday’s game, reacting dismissively when asked about the significance of evening their record. Perhaps he was thinking about the Mariners’ four straight losses to Toronto immediately after they overcame a 2-8 start to claw back to 17-17 on May 10. That losing stretch coincided with an injury to Robinson Cano, but Servais doesn’t want complacency to set in.
“Whenever you get to the point you start chasing a number, whether it’s ‘X’ amount of wins or getting to .500, it’s not worth it,’’ he said. “You stay with the process, and trying to get guys in good spots where they feel good about their game.”
The Mariners appear to be there right now, and it’s taken some deft maneuvering by Servais. When four starters wound up on the disabled list, he sifted through a succession of replacement candidates before Christian Bergman and Sam Gaviglio seized the jobs. On Wednesday, Servais saw Carlos Ruiz happily throwing batting practice to his son in the afternoon. He decided almost on a whim to put Ruiz in the lineup at designated hitter while Nelson Cruz nursed an injury.
“Lo and behold, he hits a homer,’’ Servais said. “Good for him. But the only way you know that, you have to stay in touch with the players.”
Servais makes it a point to camp on the foul line during pregame stretching each day to chitchat with his players, and makes the rounds around the field during batting practice. It’s a task he views as a joy, not an obligation. He likes players, Servais says often, and he finds small talk often reveals larger truths.
“It’s amazing what you find out about players when you just spend time listening to them,’’ he said.
Zunino said Servais’ gift is letting players be themselves — the same thing they say across the street about Pete Carroll. But when the team needed a hammer rather than a head pat, Servais provided it, albeit wrapped in velvet.
“He’s kept it positive, but there was a time there he had to be brutally honest and say, ‘We’re not playing good baseball,’ ’’ Zunino said. “At one point, he said, ‘You’ve got to come back swinging,’ and I think guys are really taking it to heart.”
I have no idea if this latest Mariners revival will stick. I’ve given up on trying to read this team, which has a habit of soaring just when you think they’ve sunk — and plummeting right at the point they’ve won you back.
But with each passing game, Servais shows that he has the right stuff to lead them through whatever pitfalls await. Oh, his strategic moves will be nitpicked and second-guessed, just like any manager. But when Servais was hired without any managerial experience at any level, I felt a much bigger concern was his ability to win over a skeptical clubhouse. It helped immensely that team elders such as Cano, Cruz, Kyle Seager and Felix Hernandez bought in almost immediately.
Servais has always lauded that leadership group, but added, “Ultimately, I’m the manager of the club, and I am going to lead.”
Right now, the Mariners are playing with verge and energy. That tends to happen when you’re winning a majority of games. It might not last. But rock bottom is no longer anywhere in sight.