When a team has a history of disappointing when it counts, and begins what has been billed as the homestand to end all homestands with a stinker as the Mariners did Friday, you’re inviting scorn. It’s part of the muscle memory for Seattle fans.
The doubters and cynics and nonbelievers will now come out in full force, of course, and not without provocation.
When a team has a history of disappointing when it counts, and begins what has been billed as the homestand to end all homestands with a stinker like the Mariners did on Friday, well, you’re inviting scorn. It’s part of the muscle memory for Seattle baseball fans.
But Mariners manager Scott Servais will have none of it. He will stand resolutely behind his squad; stand behind Felix Hernandez, who crumbled — again — in one of his rare games that really mattered; stand behind Ketel Marte and Kyle Seager, whose errors increased Hernandez’s degree of difficulty; stand behind his hitters who managed just two hits and no runs against brilliant Astros starter Collin McHugh.
It’s Servais’ way, and it has gone a long way toward helping the Mariners ride out of valleys like Friday’s ugly and deflating 6-0 loss to the Houston Astros, and coming out the other side shaken but unbowed.
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And it may be the reason they withstand this loss, damaging as it was to their playoff hopes — because every loss from here on out is damaging — with another surge left in them.
“It’s frustrating,’’ Servais said afterward. “We come in here playing very good ball, and throw a clunker out there. But I know one thing about our team: We’ll show up tomorrow, wipe this one off as quick as we can, and get after it.”
It has been one Servais’ fundamental tenets as a first-year manager: Show faith and belief in his players, no matter the setbacks and rough road. And it has served the Mariners quite well in this roller-coaster season filled with several junctures of seeming crisis.
“The worst thing you can do is jump off the boat,’’ Servais had said before the game. “Even when we’re struggling and not going so well … I think it’s important to stay consistent. Those are the guys (former managers) I enjoyed playing for. I appreciate they hung in there with you when you really weren’t at your best.”
The Mariners were far from their best Friday, which hurt in ways beyond the loss in the standings. It fed the “same-old Mariners” narrative they had begun to squelch, again, with their eight-game winning streak.
Of course, it was just one game, and this homestand, with five games remaining, can still be a great one. But a fired-up crowd, with Hernandez on the mound, had all the elements of a memorable night — and this one was eminently forgettable.
It was a game that had a pennant-race feel, if any of us can remember what a pennant race feels like. A cool September night, rabid fans (for a while anyway), fueled by the built-in tension of the wild-card chase.
But Hernandez didn’t have it from the start, just like he struggled in late September of 2014 in a must-win game in Toronto – eight runs allowed in 42/3 innings that night (four earned) in a game the Mariners lost 10-2.
This time, he gave up six runs (five earned) in 41/3 innings. The Mariners certainly didn’t help him with the errors (three total in the game), but in a pattern that’s been alarmingly familiar this season, Hernandez struggled with his command, and when he got behind, the Astros rocked him.
Before the game, I had asked Servais if he expected Felix would embrace one of the rare opportunities to pitch in a game with postseason implications. He practically jumped out of his chair to shoot down the notion Hernandez needed to get extra pumped up for this or any other game.
“Just do his job,’’ Servais said. “Just keep us in the game, give us a chance. That’s all we’ve really asked of all our starting pitchers.”
But after striking out leadoff man George Springer as the crowd chanted “Let’s Go, Felix” and waved their “K” cards, it went downhill quickly. Hernandez worked out of a jam in the first, then got himself into several more he was unable to wriggle out of. Two home runs in the fifth brought out Servais with the hook, and pretty much ended the Mariners’ hopes for the night.
But hardly for the season, rapidly running out of days. One benefit of this team is that it has bought into Servais’ attempts to create a looser atmosphere to carry it through the rough patches. And in so doing, go against his own inclination as a major-league catcher.
“I was more of a hard-nosed grinder, take every game life or death,’’ Servais said. “I think over time I’ve mellowed a little because hopefully I think players respond to that a little bit better.”
It took an early buy-in from what Servais calls his “leadership group,” mainly Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Seager.
“I said it to that group early on, especially Robbie and Nelson particularly: I’m forever indebted to those guys,’’ Servais said. “My first opportunity to do something like this, you need the veteran players. You’ve got to earn their trust eventually over time. But they didn’t start out with any misgivings – oh, this guy’s a clown, this guy’s a joke, whatever. They gave me an opportunity, and that’s all you ask for.”
The bottom line, says, Servais: “It’s their team. I’ve said that from day one. It’s your team. I’m just here to facilitate and make sure it doesn’t go off the tracks. And at times when it looked like maybe we were heading down the wrong path, just to kind of steer it back on.”
The Mariners will need some steering back on track after this one. And so will the Mariner bandwagon.