Lloyd McClendon figures it took him the entirety of spring training, plus 55 games of the regular season, before he really knew his Mariners team — who to pat on the back, who to kick in the rear, and who to leave alone altogether.
I think it’s taken most outsiders a little longer to figure out this bunch, because those who have followed the Mariners the past 10 years — the lost decade — carried some extra baggage. Like cynicism, distrust and downright scorn, built up from years of underachievement and general lackluster play.
The tendency this season has been, at each lull or bad patch — like Monday’s 2-0 loss to the Rangers and their previously struggling pitcher Miles Mikolas, for instance — to assume that the fun is over, and the team is about to default back to its old form. The pennant race? Contention? Control-alt-delete.
So I’d say the biggest victory for the 2014 Mariners wasn’t the ninth-inning comeback on Friday in Boston, though that certainly played a part.
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It’s been getting fans to believe in the team again. To care about them. And, slowly, to trust them.
Oh, it’s not all there yet. Games like Monday’s will always trigger a sense of déjà vu. The series in Philadelphia, capped by as clumsy a loss as you’ll ever see, brought the naysayers back out of hiding. The first eight innings in Boston emboldened them. But the 5-3 comeback win against the Red Sox — as rousing and meaningful as any in memory — kicked them even deeper into recession.
McClendon knows that fans’ loyalty can be fickle, as resolute as the latest outcome. But slowly, even dispiriting shutout losses will not mean the roof is caving in. Not completely, anyway.
“As good as we’ve been, and I hate to break the news, we’re going to lose a few games,’’ McClendon said after Monday’s loss. “We’re probably going to lose a few games people thought we should win. That’s just the way it goes. That’s baseball.
“I’ve said it before, it’s hard to win at this level every night. As disappointed as people are, and I’m sure the world is probably caving in tonight, we’ll be OK tomorrow.”
The next few weeks will determine whether the buy-in will be complete, because a poorly timed losing skid would undermine much of that newfound trust. But it’s significant that McClendon’s most important constituency — his players — is gaining in confidence by the victory.
“There’s a different walk, a different talk,” McClendon said. “They’re wearing the uniform a little different. It’s a good thing … Our guys are feeling pretty good about what they’re doing.”
With his Detroit pedigree, McClendon was brought in to change the culture, and in that he’s succeeding. He hearkened all the way back to the first time he gathered the team in spring training.
“I’m sure they probably thought I was crazy after the first meeting,’’ he said.
No, McClendon didn’t tell the Mariners — a team coming off a 91-loss season, and 87 the year before that, and 95 the year before that, and 101 the year before that — they were going to win this thing.
“I can’t lie,’’ he said. “I still haven’t said that. We’ll just take it one day at a time.”
But McClendon did, by all accounts, put forward expectations of a new mindset and expressed his belief that this team was ready to turn the corner.
“I don’t remember everything about it, but I remember he was very confident in the team he had here, and what he thought we were capable of doing,’’ said Dustin Ackley, whose own turnaround has been so vital to the team’s resurgence.
It wasn’t a smooth road to the Mariners’ current status as an American League wild-card team. There was the eight-game losing streak in April that firmed up every preconceived notion of this being the same-old Mariners. There was the all-too-familiar hitting malaise in the first half that made it seem as if all their great pitching was going to go for naught.
But three acquisitions before the trade deadline, and the insertion of Chris Taylor at shortstop, bumped up the offense to the level of “satisfactory,” which is really all the Mariners needed. Since Aug. 2, the M’s have gone 15-6, scoring 5 runs per game.
That might seem pedestrian for some teams, but for the Mariners it’s an offensive bonanza of epic proportions.
“For us, it was pretty much the turning point of scoring some runs,’’ Ackley said. “We’ve done that, and when we do that, we’re able to win games.”
It’s now a team that increasingly believes in itself, even more so after Friday’s rousing finish in Boston.
“I think wins like that show what you’re capable of doing,’’ Ackley said. “It’s one of those situations where you just build from it. I think our offense is as confident now as it has been. I think everyone knows what we’re capable of doing. We all know we’re capable of going deep in this playoff race. I think everyone believes that.”
Not everyone. But even the skeptics are starting to come around. Even when it seems like the world is caving in.