LOS ANGELES — While brushing shoulders with his baseball heroes and savoring every bit of the All-Star experience, a buoyant Julio Rodriguez discovered that the incredibly surging Mariners are a major topic of conversation in the American League clubhouse.
As in, “Do you guys ever lose?”
“A good amount of people have been asking about that,” Rodriguez said with a grin.
It would have been a preposterous notion just a month ago that the Mariners, of all teams, would be the talk of baseball as the sport headed into its midsummer showcase at Dodger Stadium. And yet, there they were Monday, capturing their fair share of All-Star buzz with the likes of multithreat superstar Shohei Ohtani, retiring legends Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera and local hero (and National League starting pitcher) Clayton Kershaw.
American League manager Dusty Baker’s day job as the Astros head man has definitely caused him to take stock of the Mariners’ hot streak — especially knowing those two teams will square off immediately in seven of the first 10 games after the break. From a low point of 29-39 June 19, the Mariners have won 14 in a row and 22 of their past 25 to take hold of the second AL wild-card spot. But they have made up just four games on Houston during that stretch — enough to at least cut their deficit in the AL West standings to single digits at nine games.
“Well, I thought the Mariners had a good team from the very beginning, and I told everybody back then,” Baker said. “They finished extremely strong last year. You have to beat them; they’re not going to beat themselves. And the thing about the Mariners is that they had probably the toughest travel in baseball in the first month or so, going back and forth across the country four or five times. Now a lot of their games are at home, where they’re extremely tough. So they’re going to be tough down the stretch.”
Funny he should mention the excessive early travel. The Mariners’ other All-Star, Ty France, cited it as an unavoidable factor in the ballclub’s rocky start. Not in an excuse-making way, but just the reality of not playing a single road game in the Pacific time zone until June 21.
“Our schedule sucked the first month and a half,” France said. “We had three East Coast trips in a row, and we were exhausted. It’s hard. And so once we were able to get that out of the way, we were able to just focus on our game again, not worrying about travel. We were able to play our baseball.”
And if there was a common theme to their peers’ perception of “Mariners baseball” as I canvassed the All-Stars during Monday’s media availability, it was a litany of non-sexy factors. Such as: They present quality at-bats up and down the lineup. They rarely mess up a play on defense. And their pitching staff battles with intensity from the starters through their relievers.
Here’s a sampling:
- Jake Cronenworth, Padres (swept in two games during the streak): “I think the biggest thing for that team, it just felt like every at-bat there is fire in each one of those guys. They were having quality at-bats every time, and their pitchers were going out and pounding the zone. It just felt like they played the right way that entire series.”
- Manny Machado, Padres: “They’ve got a tremendous team out there, and they’re going to compete every single day. They’re a fun team to watch.”
- Jordan Romano, Blue Jays (swept in four games during the streak): “That’s what happens when a team gets hot — great starting pitching, clutch hitting and their bullpen has been phenomenal. … They’re a pretty dangerous team right now. I’m sure they’ll keep it up to some extent. They’re a tough team to beat, and I’m sure they’ll be right there at the end.”
- Paul Blackburn, A’s (beaten twice by Mariners at the outset of the streak): “That’s kind of what a lot of people thought how they’re going to be the whole year. I feel like the Mariners are the type of team that makes you work for a lot of stuff, and from a pitching standpoint, they put together really good at-bats. They fight off a lot of tough pitches. There’s really no soft spot throughout that lineup..”
- Corey Seager, Rangers (swept in four games during the streak): “They’re playing really good baseball. It’s something that when you run into a team like that, they’re hard to beat. For the last two weeks, they’ve been a really good team.”
- Justin Verlander, Astros: “I think they played the Astros very tough last year. I think this potential was definitely there early in the season. With J-Rod getting going and their pitching, it makes them very dynamic.”
The other common theme that emerged was the sense that the Mariners were having a whole lot of fun. Of course, who wouldn’t have fun winning every day for two full weeks (and almost every day for a month)? Watching from afar, Dodgers All-Star Tyler Anderson noticed the joy emanating from the Mariners, which he saw close up as a team member during last year’s playoff run that fell just short.
“Being on that Mariners’ team was so much fun,” he said. “I’ve told guys before, and we talked about it the other day on the bench — it’s just different. They play baseball a little differently. You watch those guys every day, and they just have so much fun.”
Again, that perception was confirmed by France, who said the attitude alluded to by Anderson has carried over to this year and helped sustain them during their early struggles.
“”I think there’s our core group from last year who took a lot of pride in making baseball fun,” France said. “We went through that tough stretch last year, and it was hard showing up to the field every day. So we had to find a way to make baseball fun again. And we found that way.
“We now know who we are as a team, and we’re able to just run with it. No one makes fun of us more than us.”
Such teasing and self-deprecation is an internal coping mechanism. Externally, the incredibly streaking Mariners are invoking nothing but grudging admiration from their rivals.