The Mariners’ 2015 season took a turn for the worse when they went 2-9 on an 11-game homestand that began in late May. “That really defined our season,” manager Lloyd McClendon said.
The “how” and “why” regarding the demise of the 2015 Mariners isn’t simple to sum up. It involves words and more words, describing misses, mistakes and missteps.
• An inability to hit with runners in scoring position.
• Early offensive shortcomings led by the team’s highest-paid player — Robinson Cano.
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• Injuries to the starting rotation.
• Baserunning gaffes.
• Wasted outs.
• Most of all, a massive bullpen failure, which included 24 blown saves.
And that just scratches the surface.
The Mariners’ final record was 76-86 as they limped to the finish with a patchwork rotation, an unproven and inexperienced bullpen and two ailing stars.
Instead of playing meaningful games in the final month of the season — which had been expected when the season began — they played out the string, which has happened nearly every September since 2001.
“You are what you are, regardless of how you got there,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “You can talk about the blown saves, the lack of offense in the first half, but it is what it is. The fact that we blew those saves means we weren’t good enough. We can always say where it could have been this or it could have been that. But you learn in baseball, you are where you are. And we were a 76-win team this season.”
The “when” of the demise is easier to pinpoint. Even over the course of a 162-game season, there are moments where the postseason hopes devolved from goal to bleak hope to impossibility.
McClendon rubbed his shorn head reflectively when one of those moments was mentioned. There was one stretch of futility from which the Mariners never seemed to recover.
On May 27 at Tropicana Field, Nelson Cruz crushed his 18th homer of the season, a prodigious shot off Rays closer Brad Boxberger that landed in a tank full of stingrays beyond the wall in deep right-center. The three-run shot in the ninth broke a 0-0 tie and gave the Mariners an improbable 3-0 win and a three-game series sweep of Tampa. It ended a 6-3 road trip vs. three American League East teams and moved the Mariners to 23-23 — the first time they were at .500 since April 12, when they were 3-3.
For the first time in the young season, the Mariners seemed to be playing a high level of baseball.
“We are starting to hit our stride a little bit,” McClendon said after the game. “We are pitching. We are playing defense. We are starting to swing the bats.”
The Mariners seemed poised for a run. They were heading back to Seattle for an 11-game homestand against the Yankees, Indians and Rays.
McClendon even took a little dig at MLB Network analysts for their criticism of his team early in the season.
“I think it was a little bit over-exaggerated that we fell off a cliff or we had a country-club atmosphere in our clubhouse,” he said. “I think those are unfair shots.”
Little did he know the cliff dive was just a week away.
The Mariners would fall flat, going 2-9 on the homestand. That 23-23 record was the last time the Mariners would be at .500.
“That really defined our season,” McClendon said quietly.
The homestand started with a 5-3 loss to 2014 AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and the Indians, coupled with the loss of starter James Paxton to a strained finger tendon. Seattle lost three of four games to Cleveland.
The low point of the homestand came when they were swept by the Yankees in three games. Felix Hernandez delivered a subpar showing in a duel against Michael Pineda for the first loss. Fernando Rodney had a crushing blown save in Game 2. He allowed the tying run on a two-out, RBI double to Stephen Drew, who was hitting .160 at the time. Seattle lost the game in extra innings.
Masahiro Tanaka beat the Mariners in the series finale, limiting them to one run. After the game, general manager Jack Zduriencik traded for Mark Trumbo to help the sagging offense.
The homestand tailspin continued, with Seattle dropping three of four to the Rays. In falling to 25-32, the Mariners averaged just 1.9 runs and struck out 119 times in those 11 games.
“That pretty much stuck us in a rut, and we were trying to get out of it the rest of the season,” McClendon said.
The Mariners weren’t good enough to get out of it. They couldn’t reverse the trend with a 9-2 run of their own.
“The only way you go 9-2 is when you have dominant starting pitching, each and every night,” he said. “Obviously with (Hisashi Iwakuma) down and Paxton down and (Taijuan) Walker’s struggles in the first half, that played a lot into that.”
Iwakuma went on the disabled list April 24 because of a strained lat muscle and didn’t return until July 5. Paxton was on the DL from May 29 to Sept. 12. For 33 games, Seattle was without its Nos. 2 and 3 pitchers.
The longest win streak the Mariners produced was five games — Sept. 1-6 — when they were nine games under .500. From May 28 to Aug. 1, Seattle failed to win three games in a row at any point.
During that two-month period of inconsistency, the Mariners endured bullpen issues, starting with closer Rodney’s failures and spreading to the right-handed setup men. Dominic Leone, Yoervis Medina, Danny Farquhar and Tom Wilhelmsen were all key contributors to a bullpen in 2014 that finished with the lowest ERA in the AL at 2.59. Those four players all spent time in the minor leagues because of ineffectiveness, with Leone and Medina getting dealt to other teams. Rodney was designated for assignment, then traded.
“I never thought we’d be as good as we were (in 2014),” McClendon said. “But I certainly didn’t think we’d be this bad. Those guys in the minor leagues. Rodney DFA’d. Those guys now in the bullpen, most of them probably aren’t ready. Not in my wildest dreams did I think that would happen.”
Saves were blown, leads were lost and deficits were impossible to overcome. The Mariners’ bullpen finished with 24 blown saves, 36 losses and a 4.15 ERA, fourth-worst in the AL. It’s a reason the Mariners had 12 walkoff losses and 27 losses in an opponent’s final at-bat.
Any hope of a run after the All-Star break was thwarted in the first 14 games. Joe Beimel and Rodney blew winnable games in New York, Mark Lowe lost a game in Detroit, and the Diamondbacks swept Seattle at Safeco. At 11 games under .500 at the trade deadline, Zduriencik began dealing future free agents. He was fired Aug. 28.
The Mariners made one last push for .500 and relevancy, getting to 74-77 on Sept. 22. But Wilhelmsen blew a save the following day, and the Mariners lost nine of 10.