How many times this year have the Mariners been dead and buried, written off for good? How many times did it appear that the joy ride had finally careened to a halt, and the inevitable (and inexorable) collapse had commenced? Or that it was never going to get going in the first place?
Maybe it was when they were no-hit twice in the span of 13 days in May, highlighting an offensive attack that seemed to be fatally inept.
Or when they had the COVID-19 outbreak in San Diego later that month, and then got swept three games by the Padres by a combined 31-7 margin, falling five games under .500 on May 23.
Or when Cleveland scored three in the ninth to tie and then walked it off in the 10th on June 10, their eighth loss in 11 games and the most galling of all.
Or at the trade deadline when the clubhouse rebelled against the departure of Kendall Graveman and the M’s proceeded to lose nine of their next 13 games — including two horrendous walk-off defeats against woeful Texas, and three feeble efforts against the Yankees.
Or just last week, when they were blown out two games by a combined 27-4 margin in Houston, which was widely interpreted as the most definitive sign that their pleasant little run was over.
Well, guess what: This Mariners team is indestructible. They’ve proven it over and over, emerging from each crisis, each alleged mortal blow, with renewed vigor and yet another surge that puts them right back in the thick of the playoff race.
By now, with just 35 games remaining, the lesson should be emblazoned in everyone’s psyche: The Mariners aren’t going anywhere. The fun might get interrupted, their resilience might be sorely tested along the way, but each time they find a way to survive, and thrive. And it’s gone on long enough to cease being seen as a fluke and start being seen as an ingrained characteristic.
How are they doing it? Maybe it’s smoke and mirrors, but it works better than Smoak and Miranda ever did. They’re succeeding with (mostly) strong starting pitching, a killer bullpen, outstanding defense, clutch-enough hitting and a certain indefinable quality — call it “belief” or “chemistry” or “resilience” or something else. But whatever it is has allowed them to overcome any manner of adversity with only a stumble, not an outright pratfall.
After Tuesday’s 5-1 win at Oakland that pulled the Mariners within one game of the A’s, manager Scott Servais coyly pointed out that they had a run differential of minus-nine on their 6-2 road trip (to go with a ghastly minus-56 overall run differential that by all analytical accounts should have doomed their season long ago).
“But our fun differential is about plus-90,” Servais said with a grin, and then alluded to a postgame celebration in the coaches’ room after each win “that’s turned into the biggest frat house you ever want to be a part of.”
Addressing his team’s ability to perpetually bounce back, Servais said: “They really do a good job of staying in the moment. Sometimes our younger players try to get ahead of themselves a little bit. We try to slow them down, but this group I can’t say enough about. They’re fun. They’ve got personality. They know how to play.
“The biggest thing I talked about way back at the beginning of the season, we’re going to continue to get better as the season goes along. I still think there’s a really good run in there for our offense. … When we get that whole offense really clicking, I think that our best baseball is still ahead of us.”
Catcher Tom Murphy called it “the most enjoyable team I’ve ever been on.”
But that camaraderie was severely tested with the Graveman trade. Coming after an exhilarating, come-from-behind win over the Astros less than 24 hours earlier, the trade hit the players like a gut punch. The reaction was swift, intense and uniformly negative. The players felt betrayed that a team leader and key reliever such as Graveman was dispatched precisely when everything seemed to be peaking.
The two-week slide that followed was probably the most serious of all the threats to the Mariners’ chances to maintain contention. But to their credit, they pulled out of the funk. It helped, of course, that the player acquired for Graveman, Abraham Toro, has been a hitting dynamo, with a .320/.400/.474 slash line in 26 games since joining the Mariners. His emergence has certainly made general manager Jerry Dipoto’s rationale more understandable.
But Murphy said the players had to do some soul-searching to get beyond the initial shock of the trade.
“Each person was affected individually,” he said. “I think collectively, there’s probably a little bit of a letdown, because Kendall was so loved. So it had nothing to do with more than that. He pitched fantastically for us this year. He was one of our leaders, one of our brothers. And he will forever be loved on this team, for sure. He helped us get to this point.
“But there comes a time where you realize you don’t want to waste all that time that you spent winning and really doing the right thing because you’re feeling down about something that’s out of your control.
“So we took that, after the first few days, and just kind of ran with it, and got back to being who we were. And I think you’re seeing that right now. Really, that’s a testament to the guys in the clubhouse, the staff, everybody, about not letting that become something that’s going to tear down this great season that we’re having this year.”
By now, it looks like nothing can tear down this season — and they’ve subjected that notion to a multitude of crash tests. These 2021 Mariners? No matter how bad it looks, they’re not going anywhere.