On the Mariners’ huge-o-meter — a very scientific measuring tool, by the way — this three-game series against the Oakland Athletics ranks as hilariously gigantic.
It’s laughable because, over the past decade, the Mariners have played so few important summertime games. It’s easy to get carried away over a July matchup featuring a playoff position-jockeying M’s squad against the best team in baseball. The season is still less than 60 percent complete, which is plenty of time for a collapse. But this feels like a mid-September type of challenge, even though the Mariners have struggled over the past week.
No matter how much Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon grunts otherwise, he changed the starting rotation and turned Thursday night’s game against Minnesota into a bullpen showcase in order to save ace Felix Hernandez for a Friday night extravaganza against Jeff Samardzija, the star pitcher Oakland recently acquired from the Chicago Cubs in an all-in declaration.
McClendon says it’s ludicrous to place too much important on a single series, especially at this point in the season, asking facetiously, “What happens if we get swept? The season’s over?” Then he contradicts himself with the action of holding back Hernandez for Oakland.
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There will be no must-win pressure. But with the All-Star break arriving after the series, and with the nonwaiver trade deadline 20 days away, the next three games serve as the best midterm exam the Mariners could possibly receive.
The A’s (58-34) have the best record in baseball. They have six players headed to the All-Star Game, and it would be seven, but Samardzija lost his spot on the National League team after being traded. They’re a middle-of-the-pack offensive team with dominant pitching (3.08 ERA, best in the American League). It shows how good the Mariners, who have been the No. 2 AL wild-card team in the standings for several weeks, could be if their feeble offense simply improved to functional.
The pitching matchups are playoff caliber. The Mariners are throwing their top three starters with Hernandez (2.10 ERA), then Hisashi Iwakuma (3.07) on Saturday and Chris Young (3.08) on Sunday. Oakland counters with Samardzija (2.74 between Chicago and Oakland), Jesse Chavez (3.06) and Sonny Gray (2.97).
This weekend, the Mariners will show you the best team they have right now. What’s crazy is that, despite all the starting pitching talent the A’s will throw, they still have ace Scott Kazmir and South Kitsap High School product Jason Hammel, another big-time talent acquired in that Cubs trade, in their rotation. Like nearly every contender, Oakland could use another bat, but the roster is so pitching rich, bullpen included, that you can easily envision a World Series appearance.
On the other hand, the Mariners remain a question mark. It’s only clear that, if the second wild-card spot remains a battle of teams slightly above mediocre, they will remain in the race all season. Are the Mariners capable of reaching 90 wins if need be? Without a lineup upgrade, it’s unlikely.
The Mariners’ offensive woes the past week are another message to management that the team can’t be considered dependable without reinforcements. In particular, the production in left field, where Dustin Ackley starts, and at designated hitter, as Corey Hart has returned from injury, continues to be subpar. It’s alarmingly bad. The Mariners have to consider trades that would improve them in both of those spots, and despite the solid play of Logan Morrison at first base in the last month, that’s not a secure spot, either.
Oakland is certain to leave the Mariners with an understanding of what they’re lacking. It’s an ideal pre-stretch run preview. It will focus the Mariners’ efforts to improve. And if the team fares well, it will give them confidence to continue to overachieve even as management explores its options for outside help.
“We’ve got to get better,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said earlier this week. “We’re not satisfied. Every day I walk in the locker room, look our manager in the eyes and ask, ‘How do we get better?’ ”
The A’s will provide some valuable information this weekend. But the Mariners also have a chance to show they belong. They might already believe it, but proving it to the public would be huge.
When it comes to perception, this hilariously gigantic series is impossible to downplay.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277
On Twitter @JerryBrewer