After Friday’s play, the Mariners are double digits behind the Rangers in the AL West, trailing six teams in the wild card and trying to hold off several others behind them.
As the depressing results of Marexit — the Mariners’ whirlwind departure from the AL West race — settle in, it’s an appropriate time to re-examine their place in the world order.
From the peak giddiness after their June 2 win over the Padres, in which Seattle came storming back from a 12-1 deficit after five innings, it’s pretty much been Murphy’s Law in action. And unfortunately for the Mariners, the Murphy in question wasn’t Dale or National League batting leader Daniel.
Before Adam Lind performed his act of civic duty Friday night by stemming the growing tide of mass hysteria, the Mariners had lost 16 of 22 games after that seemingly galvanizing comeback miracle in San Diego. Beyond showing that momentum in baseball can be highly overrated (at least the kind emanating from one victory), it was a stark reminder that the road to the playoffs is filled with peril.
Of course, for the Mariners that has been a road less traveled. Or, for the past 14 years and counting, not traveled at all, kind of like I-5 during a presidential motorcade. For two uplifting months, this looked like it could be the year that all changed. The Mariners reached Memorial Day, a traditional playoff checkpoint, eight games over .500, half a game out of first but safely ensconced in a wild-card berth.
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Now, after Friday’s play, they’re double digits behind the Rangers, trailing six teams in the wild card and trying to hold off several others behind them. In other words, in a depressingly familiar spot — flailing against increasing odds to make this a meaningful season, and trending in the wrong direction
Mind you, I’m not saying these are the same old Mariners; but rather, that we’ve seen this before. It isn’t quite the same thing. Close, but with an escape clause.
I went into the 2016 season thinking this was a .500 Mariners team, with a margin for error of a few games in each direction. And though they’ve soared and plunged en route, that’s exactly where they are. Given the current state of baseball, slouching toward parity with a second wild card to aid the process, if the margin for error is on the positive side, that puts you in playoff contention.
Which is to say, this Seattle season is not dead and buried, despite the understandable tilt toward that conclusion. It’s been ugly and it’s been real (and at times, real ugly), but I don’t think it’s quite as dire as it appears.
For one thing, the Mariners have been inundated with injuries, which has exposed their lack of depth and highlighted their inherent weaknesses.
When Leonys Martin and Ketel Marte were on the disabled list, the defensive vulnerability at two vital positions was damaging. When three starting pitchers got hurt (as well as one of their replacements, Adrian Sampson), it forced some desperate reshuffling. And that in turn thrust far too much workload on a bullpen that was already short-handed, and the resulting struggles weren’t a surprise.
The Mariners are finally getting whole again, which should help considerably, though much will depend on the ability of Taijuan Walker and especially Felix Hernandez to stay healthy in the second half.
As the trade deadline approaches, general manager Jerry Dipoto will have to be nimble to fortify the pitching staff — unless the season completely falls apart and the Mariners become sellers, in which case Nelson Cruz would become a coveted trade chip. But the aforementioned forces of parity will almost certainly keep them close enough to advocate for tinkering rather than unloading.
Despite the horrific results of the past three weeks, there are trends that should provide hope. The Mariners entered Saturday as the No. 2 scoring team in the American League, with the second-best earned-run average. They have outscored opponents by 47 runs — nine more than the Rangers and third-most in the American League. By Baseball Prospectus’ Pythagorean method of predicting results via run differential, they should have a .568 win percentage and lead the division.
Instead, they’re being hammered in close games — 14-21 in contests decided by two runs or fewer this season, including 13 losses by two runs or fewer and nine by one run in a 9-19 stretch. That could change if and when the Mariners’ rotation gets back to normal and their bullpen isn’t pitching the most innings in the American League, as has been the case during this June swoon.
Of course, jaded Mariners fans don’t want to hear any of this, nor should they. Until proven otherwise, the default mode is pessimism, cynicism and a fatalistic belief in the worst-case scenario. It’s uncanny how it never fails.
There’s been a lot of talk this year about a culture change under Dipoto and manager Scott Servais, and it was a festival of laughs and swelmets for a long time. I became convinced that this was a better team than I had anticipated. But that was before the Rangers ran off with the division, leaving the Mariners in a large pack fighting for a wild card.
If it sounds like Lloyd McClendon’s first year, it should. The Mariners had virtually the same record at this point of the season, and finished one game out of a wild-card spot with 87 wins. I recall hearing about culture change then, too, until McClendon became the next in a long line of managers ushered out the door.
At some point, at least theoretically, the Mariners will attain both real culture change and a postseason berth. The door is still open, but the degree of difficulty has gone up considerably.