With the best lineup the club has had in years, the Mariners seem to be for real in the chase for a wild-card spot. If they can get just stay healthy, it could be a special summer in Seattle.
For the Mariners, the wins have kept coming, with titles to identify them for future savoring. The Verlander Unperfecto (alternate title: The Dyson Bunt Game). The Andrew Moore Unveiling. Felix’s Return.
Each has been rousing in its own way, each adding to the sense that this will be a memorable baseball summer in Seattle, after all.
After all the injuries that decimated the pitching staff and disrupted the lineup. After all the callups and senddowns between Seattle and Tacoma that turned I-5 into a Mariner-centric thoroughfare. After all the griping that this season was another in a long line of Mariner letdowns.
But rather than being an overhyped (and unhealthy) mess, as it appeared at various crisis points in April and May and even into June, this Mariners team is being transformed into something more. Improbably, the Mariners are smack-dab in the middle of a playoff run, with a growing sense that it is actually sustainable.
Oh, things can still go wrong. This remains a fragile construct, with youngsters who might show their age, and pitchers whose health and/or consistency are still a concern. But you can sense the confidence growing in the clubhouse, right along with the energy in the stands. As manager Scott Servais said on Friday, after a 13-3 Mariners rout of the Astros, “We’ve got some guys that are hungry. We’ve got youngsters that want to prove themselves and an older group that wants to win really bad. That’s a good combination to have.”
The Astros have run away from the division, so realistically the Mariners are playing for a wild-card berth (but don’t tell Jay Buhner). And they began play on Saturday just a game out of one, meaning that they were potentially a day away from holding onto a distinction that has eluded them longer than any team in baseball, since 2001.
They’ve teased us before, of course. Being in a playoff spot in June doesn’t mean anything. Check back on Oct. 1, when the season ends. But this feels more legitimate than other Mariner surges. The huge gap in athleticism that existed between the Astros, in particular, and the Mariners is narrowing. As they slowly return to health, we can finally see and evaluate the team widely regarded as a playoff contender heading into the year.
How long has it been since the Mariners had a lineup this deep? Certainly not in Kyle Seager’s major league lifetime, which began in 2011, a year after the Mariners had one of the worst offensive seasons of the expansion era.
Seager is now the old man (in terms of continuous service in Seattle) of the Mariners’ position players, the keeper of history that is mostly forgettable. Ask him to name a comparable lineup during his tenure, and he answers immediately.
“There hasn’t been. It’s not even close. This is far and away the best lineup we’ve had since I’ve been here. It’s a very exciting feeling where you know one to nine, any given day, legitimately a guy in this lineup can win a game for us in a multitude of ways. It’s not where we’re just relying on home runs.”
With the emergence of rookies Ben Gamel and Mitch Haniger, and the resurgence of Danny Valencia and Mike Zunino, the Mariners don’t have a dead spot to prop up a struggling opposing pitcher. There have been years when the entire lineup was a lull. It’s no longer Cano, Cruz and Seager, or bust.
“You don’t feel like if we don’t hit a homer, or we don’t hit a double, or something like that, we’re not going to be able to win,’’ Seager said. “This lineup is phenomenal top to bottom. I mean, you got guys like Zunino, with all he’s doing, hitting in the nine hole. That’s pretty impressive.”
It will come down to the pitching, of course, and there are all sorts of question marks, health and otherwise, in the rotation and bullpen. But the outlook with James Paxton and Felix Hernandez back in the rotation is certainly infinitely brighter than it was without those two. Still missing are Hisashi Iwakuma and Drew Smyly, whose returns remain in flux.
It may come down to whether general manager Jerry Dipoto, who has done a superb job of identifying under-the-radar talent (Gamel, Haniger, Ariel Miranda, James Pazos), can acquire a piece or two to put them over the top. It wasn’t that long ago, when they were eight games under .500 on May 27, that the Mariners were at a tipping point toward a trade-deadline sell-off. But their resurrection changes the dialogue.
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For now, the Mariners will try to ride the good feeling they are developing as far as it takes them.
“Guys have a lot of confidence right now,’’ Servais said after Friday’s 16-hit attack. “They feel good walking to the plate. No pressure on anybody. I think that’s what happens when the whole lineup is kind of moving together really well.”
It’s a vibe that has been elusive in these parts. If the Mariners can carry it through October, maybe this season can be dubbed The Drought-Ender.