Minnesota, currently holding the second wild-card spot, has lost five of its past six. The Mariners have responded by losing five consecutive games to remain four games back and fall to 74-78.
Mathematical elimination from the postseason doesn’t usually make a sound. But the logical/symbolic elimination of the Mariners from yet another postseason was the shotgun-like crack of Rougned Odor’s bat squaring up a baseball — a sound that echoed throughout a largely empty Safeco Field on Wednesday night.
The groan from the 15,962 spectators in attendance that followed as Odor’s towering fly ball cleared the wall in right-center for a grand slam was part frustration and acceptance that the remaining hope of a spot in the wild card was done, even though the Mariners were still technically alive.
A seven-run fourth inning, punctuated by Odor’s second career grand slam, made an eventual 8-6 defeat against the Rangers inescapable for the Mariners, and an October spent watching others play meaningful games an inevitable reality.
Perhaps more galling was the Minnesota Twins, the team holding the second wild-card spot, lost earlier in the day. The Mariners knew it when they took the field. And yet, it didn’t prevent them from that sloppy, game-changing frame.
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“The fourth inning was where it unraveled,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “We had the walks, made a couple errors in that inning and then the big mistake pitch to Odor that dug us a really big hole.”
Over the past six days, the Twins have invited the Mariners, Rangers and Angels to steal their projected spot in the wild-card game. Minnesota has lost five of its past six, including being swept at Yankee Stadium the past three games. The Mariners have responded by losing five consecutive games to remain four games back and fall to 74-78.
“They hurt,” Servais said of the defeats. “There’s no question about it. I think everybody feels it in our clubhouse. We’ve got to play better baseball. You aren’t going to the playoffs if you continue to make errors, don’t execute in crucial situations or make pitches. That’s just where we are at. That’s the reality of it.”
Four games back, 10 games left to play — with three against the Indians looming — math says there’s a chance, sort of like playing the lottery. Sense says there isn’t and the longest postseason drought in Major League Baseball will continue for another season.
Another game where they failed gain ground, another day less to come back. Yes, the current wild card race isn’t a testament to parity, but reeking mediocrity. And the Mariners couldn’t push themselves over the fray this past few weeks because they haven’t played well enough do so. If anything, they’ve played below their expected capability.
“Our guys continue to battle and compete but we’ve got to play smarter, play crisper baseball,” Servais said. “Walks, a couple of errors, baserunning mistakes, it all adds up into something you can’t overcome no matter how many runs you score. We’ve got be crisper than that.”
For the first three innings Wednesday, Felix Hernandez and Mitch Haniger provided some optimism on the chilly night. Using an array of off-speed pitches, Hernandez, who was making his second start since coming off the disabled list, worked through the Rangers’ lineup without allowing a base runner, retiring nine in a row.
“The first three innings he threw the ball outstanding and was attacking the strike zone,” Servais said. “I thought it was as sharp as he’s been in a long time.”
Haniger, who has surged in September, gave the Mariners a 1-0 lead, hammering his 14th homer of the season — a line drive into the second deck of Edgar’s Cantina — off Rangers starter Andrew Cashner.
A 1-0 lead wasn’t much, but it was something.
Hernandez stepped to the mound trying to post a shut-down inning and remain efficient to work within a pitch count of around 70 to 75 pitches. What transpired was quite the opposite.
“I lost my command a little bit,” he said. “I was missing and missing down in the zone. They were waiting a little bit. The first three innings I was going after them and throwing a lot of strikes. That was the difference.”
The Rangers adjusted to Hernandez’s approach, refusing to chase the soft stuff out of the strike zone. He issued a leadoff walk to Delino DeShields and then gave up a single to right to Shin Soo-Choo, which Haniger mishandled, allowing DeShields to third. Elvis Andrus followed with a soft ground ball that Kyle Seager misplayed for another error, allowing a run to score.
It got worse. Hernandez walked Adrian Beltre, who is playing with such a sore hamstring he can barely swing or walk. Nomar Mazara gave the Rangers a 3-1 lead with a two-run single. Hernandez got a strikeout, but a walk loaded the bases.
With the lefty-swinging Odor coming to the plate, Servais went to lefty Andrew Albers, the anticipated long reliever to piggyback on Hernandez’s expected shortened start.
“He’s got power, but he’s hitting .149 off left-handers this year,” Servais said.
The ultra aggressive Odor hacked at two breaking balls, fouling them both back. He managed to lay off another breaking ball in the dirt. But a 1-2 slider from Albers hung in the middle of the zone and Odor didn’t miss it.
“I don’t think I could have thrown a worse pitch,” Albers said. “In that situation, you can’t do that. You know he’s going to swing. He’s an aggressive hitter. That’s got to be a better pitch. There’s just no excuse for that. That’s a pitch that can’t happen in that situation.”
Down 7-1 after four innings, the Mariners were done. Sure, they chipped away at the lead with a solo homer from Nelson Cruz in the bottom of the inning, another run in the sixth and a two-out, two-run single from Robinson Cano in the seventh off of lefty Jake Diekman. Seattle could have made it more interesting in that seventh when Diekman walked Cruz and Kyle Seager on nine pitches. But Yonder Alonso swung at the first pitch with bases loaded and bounced out to first to end the inning.
Seattle trimmed to the lead to 8-6 in the eighth on back-to-back doubles from Mike Zunino and Ben Gamel. But nothing more came from it with pinch hitter Danny Valencia popping out weakly and Gamel making a baserunning miscue on a ground ball in front of him, getting thrown out at third.