It was the Oakland A’s, the team the Mariners once led by 11 1/2 games in the standings, the team with the lowest payroll in baseball ($66 million), that was doing the partying.
The deciding moment came just about two minutes after the first pitch had been thrown Monday night at Safeco Field. A result from a game 3,000 miles away — a Yankees victory over the Rays — made it official.
Regardless of the outcome in the game between the Mariners and A’s, a postgame celebration for clinching a playoff spot would be held after the final pitch.
In the visitors’ clubhouse, which was lined with plastic to protect the lockers, champagne bottles were popped and sprayed in a frenzy, beers were emptied in a variety of ways, including consumption, and the accomplishment that every team sets as a basic goal at the beginning of season was rejoiced.
That team, obviously, was not the Mariners. Their fate was mathematically sealed a few days before and realistically met weeks ago.
No, it was the Oakland A’s, the team the Mariners once led by 11 games in the standings, the team that caught and passed Seattle in ridiculous and ruthless fashion, the team with the lowest payroll in baseball ($66 million), that was doing the partying.
“Of course it hurts, especially since it was looking so good in the first half,” said Seattle starter James Paxton. “They surged and we stumbled. It was a heartbreaking way to go for us. None of us are happy about those guys celebrating at our field right now.”
And even if the Rays had somehow won their game earlier in the evening, the A’s 7-3 victory over the Mariners would have cemented at least a spot for Oakland (95-62) in the American League wild-card game. The A’s are still jockeying with the Yankees for the chance to hold the wild-card game at home. New York has a 1 1/2-game lead over Oakland with six games left to play.
Meanwhile, the Mariners (85-71) added another failed season to the longest current postseason drought of the four major professional sports in North America, which is now at 17 years. Knowing an AL West rival was celebrating in their building, well, that was a poetic and somewhat fitting moment after a late-season fade that was as bad as any of their 100-loss seasons.
In fact, the last time such a triumphant affair happened in the building was Sept. 19, 2001 when that magical Mariners team clinched the AL West with its 106th victory of the season. Since then, Seattle has been a spectator in the postseason, hoping a day of change will come.
There was a time this season when the Mariners seemed certain to be the team celebrating. On June 15, following the Mariners’ 7-6 victory over the Red Sox and the A’s 8-4 defeat against the Angels, Seattle (45-25) held an 11-game lead over Oakland (34-36) in the AL West standings.
The shift between the two team’s fortunes began the next day. The A’s reeled off five victories in a row and won 12 of their next 14, while the Mariners lost six of their next eight.
Oakland caught the Mariners on Aug. 1 and went a half-game ahead the next day with another victory. The A’s never trailed again, adding to their lead and eventually pulling away.
From that day starting June 16 until the victory Monday, the A’s posted a 61-26 record. Meanwhile the Mariners compiled a 40-47 record. That’s how you turn an 11-game lead into being eliminated by mid-September. The Mariners would have had to have gone 50-37 instead to be tied with the A’s. An anemic offense, a starting rotation that couldn’t sustain a hot June, expected regression to the mean and a little less luck in one-run games would never allow such a run of winning baseball for Seattle.
“They’ve had a number of players step up,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “Their bullpen, I could speak volumes about the stuff they have down there. Tip your cap, they’ve had a heck of a season.”
As for the game Monday, the A’s bashed four homers, including Matt Chapman’s two-run smash to dead center to break a 3-3 tie in the top of the seventh inning.
Mariners reliever Shawn Armstrong, who hadn’t allowed a run in 10 appearances and 11 1/3 innings since being called up, left a cutter in the zone that Chapman hammered for his 24th homer of the season.
“It was just a bad pitch and he hit it,” Armstrong said. “Good hitters are going to hit that. It stayed straight on the outer part of the plate. It stayed straight and right into his bat path. When you make a bad pitch, that’s going to happen.”
Oakland added two more runs in the top of the eighth off Casey Lawrence to push the lead to four runs.
The Mariners got a shortened start from Paxton, who was making his first outing since Sept. 7. With the Mariners not wanting to push Paxton in his return from pneumonia and the flu, he was on a 75-pitch limit. He threw 71 in four complete innings, allowing two runs — both coming on solo homers — on three hits with two walks and five strikeouts.
“I wanted to give it everything I could,” he said. “I’m still not 100 percent. I was trying to take my time in between pitches and catch my breath. I threw some good pitches. I made some mistakes on the solo homers they didn’t miss.”
Seattle gave Paxton a brief 1-0 lead in the first inning when Robinson Cano smoked a fastball from Oakland starter Daniel Mengden over the wall in center for his 10th homer of the season.
Oakland answered with a solo homer from Jonathan Lucroy with two outs in the third. Jed Lowrie gave the A’s a 2-1 lead with a solo shot in the fourth.
Khris Davis continued the solo homer barrage in the sixth, sending a shot over the wall in center off right-hander Adam Warren. It was Davis’ league-leading 46th homer of the season.
The Mariners tied the score in the most unlikely of ways. Following Mike Zunino’s leadoff double to start the bottom of the seventh, Dee Gordon pulled a fly ball to right field that bounced off the top of the wall and over for his fourth homer of the season.