Lloyd McClendon was asked Monday what message he has conveyed to his players as they weather the first prolonged slump of his regime.
“What do I say to my players?’’ he repeated with the hint of a smirk. “The sky is falling, the Mariners are four games under, and everything’s going to hell.”
The comment was obviously intended as sarcasm, a pre-emptive strike against premature panic. But McClendon, being new to these parts, may not realize how close he came to capturing the prevailing mindset of Mariners’ fans.
And who can blame them for bailing earlier every year? The Mariners have hardly provided much reason for blind optimism in this lost decade. They got the benefit of the doubt this year for about one week – remember those giddy days of pennant fever after sweeping the Angels? – until reality, in the form of 10 losses in their last 12 games, set in.
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Every Mariners season has a point where the feeling it might be different this year is kicked aside by the sinking realization that it probably won’t. It’s easy to pinpoint when it happened for many this year: After a gem by Felix Hernandez was kicked away in the final two innings of a maddening 3-2 walkoff loss in Texas – the latest variation of an all-too-familiar nightmarish theme for the Mariners.
The good news is that there is still time – weeks, if not months — for the narrative to be changed. The bad news is that the forces conspiring against it are mounting – pitching injuries that have not only left the rotation vulnerable but overtaxed the bullpen; that’s on top of the annual hitting malaise that manifested itself after three aberrational games in Anaheim.
But McClendon spent considerable time on Monday explaining why he’s not worried, and why others shouldn’t be, either. Of course, it’s always easier to show spunk when Hernandez is taking the mound a few hours later, but McClendon clearly believes passionately in his message. The 7-2 loss on Monday to the woeful Astros, Hernandez’s first defeat, just makes it that much of a harder sell.
“We’re going to have our funks, and right now we have our funks, and we’re four games under,’’ he said. “But last time I checked, it’s a 162-game schedule. This team will be fine. We need to get our pitching straightened out. Obviously, with our starting pitchers, we’ve been dealt a tough hand with that. We just have to play it out. Once we get beyond that, I think this team will be fine.”
The pending return of Hisashi Iwakuma, if there are no setbacks, will help considerably. But it doesn’t appear that James Paxton or Taijuan Walker will be back any time soon, meaning the Mariners will continue to try to find stability beyond their Big Two. If that doesn’t happen soon, the trickle-down effect on the bullpen will be devastating.
“They’ve just been overtaxed,’’ McClendon conceded. “I think our bullpen is the backbone of this ballclub, but at the rate they’ve been asked to go out and perform, it just won’t work. We need to get some quality innings from our starters.”
Not to mention, more quality at-bats from a lineup that has sunk to its customary position near the bottom of the offensive rankings – 28th among 30 teams in OPS heading into Monday’s play. And that’s with Robinson Cano added to the lineup.
Despite McClendon’s protestation, it already feels like a season that is nearing the crisis point. I know, that’s ridiculous in April. We all understand the baseball season is a marathon. But I’ve run a few marathons, and sometimes you know from the first mile it’s going to be a struggle the whole way.
McClendon’s job is to keep that thinking out of the clubhouse. Changing the mindset of the masses is a futile effort without accompanying victories.
“We had a good talk in Miami,’’ he said. “I told them, just relax. I said, one thing about it, when you play well, you’ll be great. When you play bad, I’ll be horsebleep. That’s just the way it is. I’m a big boy. I can take it. And right now, it’s on me. I didn’t prepare them the way they should have been prepared. We had a bad road trip. We’ll get it back together. This team is going to be fine.”
McClendon added, “I’m not trying to mince words. Like I told our club, I’m not going to change. I am who I am. I’ll fight for ’em, I’ll protect ’em, I’ll believe in ’em. At the same time, they’ve got to get things done.”
It’s the getting things done part that the Mariners have always had trouble with. The cumulative effect of those struggles explains why it already feels to many like the sky is falling. And why Mariners’ fans, who were so eager to buy in, have been so quick to bail out.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry