One common email/Twitter complaint that Times reporter Ryan Divish and I get often — yes, we compare Mariners gripes from the masses — is that manager Scott Servais needs to show more emotion. Kick a few bases, like Lou used to do.
Never mind that baseball isn’t like football, where each game is of vital importance; or basketball, where coaches will bluster their way into a technical foul to fire up the squad because it’s a game that thrives on bursts of intensity. Baseball is a long-haul sport, where even-keeled steadiness is a virtue, not a sin. And besides, there’s only one Lou Piniella. Striving to emulate his personality, when it’s totally out of character, is a fool’s errand. Players can smell insincerity like a shark seeking its prey.
But those people had to have loved the fire in Servais’ eyes Monday night after Ty France was plunked by the Astros. When the manager burst out of the Mariners dugout his players followed, united in their mutual rage against Hector Neris and the Astros. Maybe the ensuing near-brawl — followed by Julio Rodriguez’s legend-building home run — will prove to be the line of demarcation in the Mariners’ season.
The fact is, things are looking up for the Mariners, who inspired little else but gripes for the first two months. From their darkest point of the season — losing two out of three to Oakland to fall into last place behind the A’s team that dismantled its roster in the offseason — doom and gloom is slowly being replaced by sun and fun. For now, anyway.
The M’s have won four consecutive series, including two over the Astros, as they prepare to open a critical — aren’t they all? — 11-game homestand Friday night. That streak includes their most satisfying win of the year in the aforementioned rancor-filled game, part of the Mariners’ first series win in Houston since 2018.
The record is still a subpar 26-31 — on pace to go 74-88, which wasn’t part of their playoff-drought-busting game plan. But here’s a reality that should be becoming clearer as the Mariners try to decide which version of this team is their true selves:
They are going to be in this thing, in some semblance, all year.
That’s less a statement of full confidence in their composition as it is a manifestation of the structure of baseball, and the state of the American League, in 2022. The addition of a third wild card greatly increases the chance that mere mediocrity keeps you in contention for a playoff spot.
It’s not a guarantee — if the third wild card had been in place last year, 90 wins still wouldn’t have been enough for the Mariners to surpass any of the AL East’s four-deep power barons. The Blue Jays, with 91 wins, would have grabbed that spot behind division winner Tampa Bay and wild cards New York and Boston.
Once again, the AL East is poised to contend for a clean sweep, and right now they have it. Boston’s recent surge, combined with the Angels’ complete and utter collapse (14 consecutive losses entering Thursday’s game with the Red Sox), has given Boston control of the third wild card.
And yet the Sox sat just three games above .500 after beating the Angels yet again Wednesday. No one else in the wild-card chase is over .500. At one juncture just a few days ago, the leader for the third wild card would have been under .500 if the Red Sox had lost.
That is why the Mariners at five games under .500 are nonetheless within four games of a playoff spot, when they could have been buried already. And it’s why the relevant math is not to figure out what sort of winning percentage it’s going to take for them to get to 90 wins again (for the record, it’s a daunting .610); it’s how many wins it will take to catch the teams in front of them for the bonus wild-card berth, all of them possessing their own set of flaws.
There are still obvious concerns that could sidetrack the Mariners, starting with the lack of bullpen depth. The return of Ken Giles is said to be imminent — but he gave up three homers out of five batters faced Wednesday night with Tacoma. The revival of Diego Castillo, who looked downright unhittable Wednesday, is a hugely positive development, and the possibility of adding converted starter Matt Brash as a potentially dominant late-inning arm is intriguing.
Speaking of revivals, the one by catcher Cal Raleigh over the past couple weeks is another cause for optimism. He slugged .607 with three homers in eight games on the just-complete road trip. If Raleigh can maintain consistent power, it’s a huge boon to the lineup.
The Mariners are still waiting, less patiently, for Jesse Winker to replicate his production from 2021, a near necessity to get where they want to be. And Robbie Ray, who is fifth in the American League in strikeouts, must stop being among the leaders in home runs allowed (fourth) and walks (sixth) to become the expected asset.
At some point, the Mariners should get a jolt of energy from the return (or re-return) of Mitch Haniger and Kyle Lewis, both of whom are riding an incredible streak of bad luck. Returning from a COVID absence, Haniger lasted one at-bat before suffering a fluky but serious ankle injury. And after spending all year recovering from his chronic knee condition, Lewis almost instantly became a formidable presence as a DH in Seattle’s lineup until suffering a concussion in just his fourth game back that sidelined him for the entire road trip.
Justin Upton will join the team soon, and it’s a total mystery whether that will be a positive or negative. At some point Jarred Kelenic will come back from Tacoma, and you could say the same thing. As much as Kelenic dominates in the Pacific Coast League, it won’t mean anything until he transfers that production to the big leagues. If he finally does, it could be a game-changer.
It’s a big, teeming plate of questions and puzzles. The fun part is that we should be compelled by them for months to come. They’ve already shown us that they can muster the intensity when the moment calls for it.