Not along ago it seemed liked the club was dead as a pile of teams were ahead of it in the wild-card race.
I am officially finished trying to figure out the 2016 Seattle Mariners, the most inscrutable baseball team on the planet.
When you think they’re done, they soar. When you’re convinced they’re taking off, they plummet. Not even two weeks ago, it looked like the Mariners’ joy ride had come to a crashing halt, and I wrote that it would take a miracle for them to leapfrog five teams into playoff position.
Well, what have we here? If winning eight games in a row and re-establishing your relevance for the home stretch constitutes a miracle, then I bow down in homage.
Mariners’ winning streak, by the numbers
Consecutive games won, starting Sept. 7 vs. Texas
Batting average by Mariners, by opponents during streak
Home runs hit, allowed
So now, with 16 frenetic games remaining in the Mariners’ season and the ballclub having roared back within yearning distance of the postseason, I’m not going to even try to handicap it. Let’s just stand back and let it all be, to steal a line from Bruce Springsteen.
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I have no idea whether they’ll rise to the moment or sink once again, and neither do you. Neither do they, for that matter, although I’d bet they have a strong feeling about it. But I think that Jerry Dipoto is on to something:
“I hope that the fans realize how close we are,” he told me Thursday. “I know they’ve been waiting 15 years to get back into this position. Obviously, in some years the club has been closer than others. But I’d have a hard time believing that on Sept. 16, as we tee up a six-game homestand, there’s ever been a homestand in those 15 years with more significance than this one.”
The Mariners seemed dead because they had the Royals, Astros, Yankees, Tigers and one from the triumvirate of Red Sox/Blue Jays/Orioles to jump over. Logic dictated that at least one of them would run away and hide.
But those teams didn’t, instead succumbing to infighting. Instead it was the Mariners who steamrolled lesser competition and hurtled past first the Royals, then the Astros, then the Yankees, before catching the Tigers, who lost while the M’s rested on Thursday.
“We knew we had a pocket in our schedule where the teams in front of us were playing one another,” Dipoto said. “We were the team left to the side. I didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing, because sometimes it’s better to play the teams you need to beat. But it worked out; they beat up each other, and we kept winning.”
Asked if he thought, in his heart of hearts, that the Mariners would make this run, Dipoto said, with a laugh, “I can’t say I could really promise you we did, but I sure thought we did.”
The Mariners seemed dead because their pitching rotation was floundering, lacking stability beyond Hisashi Iwakuma. But that was before Felix Hernandez hurled a gem in Oakland, and James Paxton showed signs that his finger and elbow issues were finally behind him, and Ariel Miranda began to look like the find of the year by Dipoto, and Taijuan Walker unveiled the game of his life in Anaheim.
That’s all subject to change, of course, but that phrase pretty much sums up the Mariners’ season. Dipoto has never stopped tinkering, unearthing not just Miranda (in a steal of a deal with Baltimore for Wade Miley) but a couple of players who unexpectedly find themselves, out of nowhere, in prime time: Ben Gamel and Daniel Vogelbach.
Houston @ Mariners, 7:10 p.m., ROOT Sports
Mike Zunino and Nori Aoki were seemingly resurrected in Tacoma (hat tip, Scott Brosius, the Rainiers’ hitting coach), where Dae-Ho Lee and Guillermo Heredia also made pit stops. The constantly remade Mariners bullpen finally looks to have the right balance, with more help out of the blue from Dan Altavilla (called up from Class AA) and Evan Scribner (finally shaking a seasonlong injury).
“I think that’s how most teams come together, evolving as the season goes along, but ours was a little more extreme,” Dipoto said. “It has been an extreme transactional 12 months. It’s been crazy — and never more so than in the month of August.”
In that month, the Mariners used eight starters and 15 relievers — 23 pitchers in all, usually the vestige of a team in disarray. That they still managed to have a winning record, which has segued into a 10-3 September, is a testament to manager Scott Servais’ ability to foster resilience, this ballclub’s defining trait.
Well, that and the unwavering middle of the order, which has helped carry them through the abyss. But Dipoto points out that in the junctures when the Mariners have really soared, it’s been when Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager have had help, whether it be Zunino, Aoki, Leonys Martin, Seth Smith or someone else sharing the load.
“We’re in the midst of another of those pockets,” he said. “Two weeks ago, I thought we had the potential for one more run. Here we sit in the midst of that run.”
Now the Mariners are a mere sustained hot stretch away from finally doing what has eluded them for so long, even in their rare contending seasons over the past decade and a half.
They can do it. They can blow it. Who knows? But it’s going to be fun to find out.
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