Yesterday Hisashi Iwakuma went 2.1 innings, the shortest start in his career, gave up 5 earned runs, and somehow, the Seattle Mariners still managed to beat the Red Sox in Boston 8-6 for a first ever three game sweep at Fenway Park. This came on the heels of Chris Young’s 3.2 inning performance on Saturday, a 7-3 Mariner victory, and Felix Herndanez’s un-Felix-like 5.2 inning outing on Friday won by the Mariners 5-3 in a dramatic 9th inning comeback.
The sweep pushes the Mariners to 71-58 on the season. That’s right, on August 24th the Mariners equaled their win total for all of 2013. They also advanced to 13 games over .500 for the first time this season, holding on a to a slim one-game lead in the second wild card race over the Detroit Tigers.
They return home today to face a battered, broken Texas Rangers ballclub, decimated by injuries. With 50-79 record, the worst in baseball, the Rangers are exactly the kind of team the Mariners have trouble with. If you don’t remember this, look up the M’s games against the woeful Philadelphia Phillies last week.
The starters for the Texas series will be Roenis Elias on Monday, James Paxton on Tuesday, and King Felix on Wednesday. All need to pitch deep into games to give the Mariners bullpen, called upon for 15.1 innings of one run baseball during the Boston series, a bit of a break. The M’s have been about run prevention-superior pitching and defense-all season, and the middle of a pennant race isn’t a time to rest on their laurels. This team is scoring more, a lot more, than prior to the deadline deals of July 31st, but they will struggle when the September stretch run is inaugurated with Washington’s visit to Seattle Labor Day weekend.
The M’s need some home-cooking before the schedule makes life really hard for them in the final month of the season. They can still win, but they’ll have to play better than they did in Boston and Philadelphia.
In 2001 the greatest team in Mariners history blew out of the gate on April 2nd, beat the Oakland A’s 5-4 and never looked back. The previous year they’d won the division series against the White Sox and lost to the Yankees in the ALCS. They were supposed to be good, and they were on the road to the World Series until the divine intervention of 9/11 stepped in and tipped the American League Championship once again to the Yankees.
Though the 2001 team was brilliant, but not perfect, it is the 1995 team we all remember most fondly. Edgar and Junior, Buhner and Randy. Joey Cora crying tears of disappointment on the bench. Luis Sojo’s double down the line of the one game playoff against the Angels, leaving Mark Langston prone on the mound. They saved baseball in Seattle. Most importantly, they won when they weren’t supposed to. They were a bad team the previous year, at 49-63 when the strike took place and plunged baseball into darkness. When the Mariners defeated the California Angels on August 3, 1995 they were twelve games back of the Halos and they weren’t even a .500 team at 44-46. They sputtered and coughed through most of the month of August, going 10-8, until they played the Yankees on August 24th. Still behind the Angels 11.5 games they outlasted the Bombers 9-7 and began a run to the end of the season that saw them go 25-11. It coincided with the Angels’ epic collapse.
Today Lloyd McClendon will look at the standings and find his team 5.5 games back of the Oakland A’s and the Los Angeles Angels. The Mariners are on a 10-2 roll. The once invincible Athletics are having trouble pitching. The Angels offensive juggernaut isn’t hitting. The Mariners have 39 games left to play with six games against each of the division leaders. With every game taking on increased importance, remembering Al Davis’ words from another sport, “Just win baby,” is probably most relevant. This team wasn’t supposed to be this good, but they are. They can pitch, they can play defense, and god help us, they’re starting to hit like they mean it. There is a look to this team like last year’s Red Sox, in which all the pieces come together and the unthinkable is now doable.
It’s time for the cast of Mariners fans to come out from behind the woodshed, where you’ve been shivering, ignored and afraid since 2005. It’s time for the Bavasi-haters, the Chuck and Howie anti-fan club, and the 2001 “truthers” to swallow their quart of Pepto-Bismol and, like Lou Piniella, embrace this team and accept that they’re good. It’s time for those who celebrated the underdogs of 1995, who, like me, have gone gray in our quiet loyalty and drag out those Refuse to Lose, and Sodo Mojo banners, proudly don your M Heads, stop muttering “I hope they can,” and start shouting “I know they can.” The moment is ripe Mariners fans. In the words of the great philosopher king, Jay Buhner, “F**k the wild card, let’s win the division.”
When the Mariners finished 71-91 last year I was devastated. Those Mariners began their year looking like they should improve on 2012’s 75-87 season, but they were bad: a poorly assembled collection of guys playing out of position, a terrible bullpen, and offense challenged. It was a stop-gap team of aging veterans on one-year deals assembled to ease the development of the young players assembled by General Manager Jack Zdurencik. It failed miserably. The team was lousy, it was painful to watch and it was boring. I was tired of Zdurencik and manager Eric Wedge, I wanted them both gone. When it was revealed Zdurencik received a double super secret contract extension I was disgusted and ready to leave the Mariners reservation.
Today the team stands at 65-55, a half game behind the sputtering Detroit Tigers for the second wild card spot. They’ve vastly diminished the leads Oakland and Los Angeles hold in the division and first wild card races. They boast first-class pitching and an offense that is inconsistently effective, but for most of the past ten days or so has been effective enough. Raul Ibanez has been replaced by Robinson Cano. A Fernando Rodney led bullpen is the best in major league baseball. Felix Hernandez is clearly the best right-handed pitcher in the world.
If I’m going to blame Jack Zdurencik for the team’s failures, he also gets my acknowledgement for his success. Though his tenure includes some bone-headed decisions like the Fister trade and signing Corey Hart, he’s made a number of key decisions that led to this year’s success.
Felix Hernandez Extension–If Zdurencik and the corporate big boys hadn’t come to terms with Felix last year we’d be having a different conversation this summer: when and where will they trade Felix? Today we’re talking about the historic nature of his 2014 performance and how it measures up against Pedro, Clemens and Ron Guidry. I like this conversation better.
Lloyd McClendon Hiring–On ESPN 710 earlier this week there was this great conversation about whether McClendon or Zdurencik was more responsible for the team’s success. I’ve really enjoyed McClendon. He’s molded the team to fit his personality. He is transparent. He is honest. It seems clear that if a player is not up to the required task he’ll be somewhere else. Ask Justin Soak and Erasmo Ramirez. It seems obvious McClendon is a key component of this team’s success. I’m glad Zdurencik had the foresight to bring him to Seattle.
Robinson Cano signing–I was not among those who criticized the signing of the Yankee slugger for a Brinks truck full of dough, and I have not been disappointed. Though the power numbers are down, Cano has performed every bit as well as I would have hoped at bat, in the field and in the clubhouse. Yes, Cano is performing well, but it is clear he has a leadership role on this team that makes him incredibly important. Scott Weber’s excellent analysis of Cano’s performance so far over at Lookout Landing make’s this clear. I believe his value goes beyond the stats.
Fernando Rodney signing-Last year the Mariners bullpen was a wreck. The most blown leads of any ‘pen in the major leagues. No clear leader. They threw too many balls and gave up too many homers. When Zdurencik signed Fernando Rodney to a two year deal I was skeptical. The 13-year veteran had a brilliant year with the Rays in 2012, and a much less successful season with them in 2013. Despite Rodney’s tendency to dance on the high wire, he’s provided solid performance and leadership out of the bullpen. Regardless whether you like his cap tilt or his bow and arrow act, his 35 saves is tied for 2nd in the major leagues.
Trading for Austin Jackson-When the Mariners began the season with Abraham Almonte in centerfield I held my breath. In my view Almonte was too inexperienced at the major league to have the responsibilities of center and leadoff hitter on him. When they shipped his shrapnel riddled major league corpse down to Tacoma in May and replaced him with the equally inexperienced James Jones my heart stopped. Though Jones was refreshing for a few weeks, it became clear the team once again overreached for a player who wasn’t ready to be in the bigs. The M’s simply have few major league solutions for a shortage of outfield talent. When Jack Z. was able to trade for a quality veteran centerfielder like Austin Jackson, a playoff veteran from an annually contending team, and give up only Nick Franklin I developed a new appreciation for Zdurencik’s trading acumen.
Today, at this moment, this team is in an entirely different place than it was in 2013. One need only look at attendance figures to know fans also realize this. Last year the team drew 1,761,546. After 66 home dates the Mariners stand at 1,651, 826. With 15 home games remaining is it possible they could draw two million? The last time the M’s drew that many was 2010. They’d need to average a tick over 23,000 per game and their current per game average is just over 25K, a number that’s likely to tick up if the team remains in the playoff chase.
The Mariners are better, the club’s fortunes are improved. It doesn’t mean things are perfect. I still remember August 27, 2007 when the Angels came to town, with the M’s three games behind them in the division race. They were swept at home and lost 15 of 17 in a bitter collapse. This team is much better than that one.
Barring a monumental el foldo, Jack Zdurencik assembled some important pieces for this team going forward. It seems likely the Mariners won’t collapse; their pitching is simply too good for that. They may not make it to the playoffs, but I have every reason to believe they can. Regardless, Zdurencik put together a roster good enough, and intriguing enough for next year to earn a contract extension.
On August 27, 2007, the 73-55 Mariners came home after losing a tough series to the Rangers to face the Angels. The game had a playoff atmosphere as the M’s were fighting for a playoff spot, and nearly 46,000 fans packed Safeco Field as the M’s took their best shot to catch the Halos, trailing their division rival by three games. Miguel Batista gave up six runs in six innings, John Lackey shut down the Mariners bats on seven hits in his complete game victory and the massive crowd went home disappointed.
The Mariners were swept at home in front of huge crowds, and went on to lose 15 of 17 between August 25th and September 11th effectively putting themselves out of the playoff picture. However, they did finish 88-74, still their best record since the 93 wins of 2003.
I share this because as well as the Mariners seem to be playing right now, bad stuff can still happen. Detroit seems to have suffered seems to have suffered devastating injuries to their pitching staff at the same time Pittsburgh’s all-everything Andrew McCutcheon has gone on the disabled list. The M’s could once again forget how to hit, as they have many times this season. As the schedule gets tougher they may suffer total amnesia, but I hope not.
Bad stuff happened in 2007 and could happen again to this seemingly snake-bit franchise, but I believe this team is different. That team was led by Ichiro in one of his last seasons of unquestionable greatness. The team scored 794 runs, no Mariners team has scored 700 runs since, but had a miserable pitching staff after a 21 year old Felix Hernandez. A strong bullpen could not keep this team from having a run differential of -19.The 2007 team was also plagued by bad chemistry. Manager Mike Hargrove mysteriously resigned mid-season, and in a tell-all 2008 post trade interview, closer J.J. Putz revealed there was considerable clubhouse dissension with particular ire directed at Ichiro.
The 2014 is led by all-world pitching and has a run differential of +84. Felix Hernandez is in an unquestioned position to be the AL Cy Young Award winner and is supported by excellent rotation mates Hisashi Iwakuma and Chris Young. The Mariners bullpen is the deepest in baseball. Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and Austin Jackson provide veteran offensive leadership to the team, while Dustin Ackley, Mike Zunino, and Chris Taylor continue to show signs of development. This teams seems to follow the examples set by Seager and Cano and seem to fit the mold desired by manager Lloyd McClendon. They believe they will win, and by all accounts, the Mariners are well-positioned for a playoff race.
Last night the Mariners mugged a bullpen depleted, sleep deprived Toronto Blue Jays team 11-1. This series, that ends Wednesday, was highly touted as a battle of wild-card rivals. Tied entering the game last night, the M’s need to beat the Jays before setting out on the road.. The three game weekend series against a battered, struggling Detroit team is taking on new significance as the Royals dropped the team from Motown into the second wild card spot, one game ahead of Seattle. Now is a good time for the Mariners to stay hot as the season sets for terminal velocity.
When my school colleagues gave me a big Mariners summer to help me recuperate from my cancer surgery I “had to” schedule some games and decide who to share them with. The first person who came to mind was Dave, my dearest friend. Dave and I go way back and have a lot of things in common, including a love of games and baseball. Another thing we have in common is summers off. Dave is retired from the Pierce County courts and I am a teacher doing little but relaxing. So I bought tickets to the Atlanta Braves game at Safeco for Wednesday afternoon.
I’ve always wanted to do the day game thing by catching the Sounder train up to King Street, spend the morning dorking around in Seattle, have an awesome lunch at Henry’s and walk over to Safeco Field to catch the game. Yesterday we did that.
David made his way to my house at about 6:30 AM. He hates driving in traffic and sure enough he was able to dodge most of it. We got everything ready to go, preparing the dogs for ten hours in their crates.
The first step to taking Sounder to the Mariners game from Puyallup is getting to the station. Parking is a pain and the Puyallup Fairgrounds provides space for commuters. I parked for free at the red lot and we connected with a Pierce Transit bus to the station. Note to self: The price of the bus is $2.50 not a buck as your pass-toting wife suggested. Dopey me. Buying a ticket for the train is easy cheesy. We each bought a day pass for $8.50. Given the cost of gas and parking, and the hassle of searching for said services, this is a great deal. We boarded the train at about 7:42 and arrived at King Street 30 minutes later.
After grabbing something to eat we stopped at an awesome toy store at First and Occidental before making our way to Ebbets Field Flannels. If you love all things baseball EFF is not to be missed. They make custom minor league and Negro League jerseys, jackets and caps. The variety of colors, patterns and different teams is staggering. Not for the faint of wallet, most items have to be special ordered. I bought a New York Knights cap based on the mythical team from the Robert Redford movie, “The Natural.” Goofy, yes, but I confess to always having wanted one. At least I stayed away from the jersey and the $395 jacket.
From there it was on to Henry’s for lunch. When we left home the skies were pretty overcast and the weather was comfortable but cool. When we left the restaurant and crossed Edgar Martinez Way it was bright sunshine and toasty warm. We entered the stadium and headed for our seats, one of the few in the ballpark bathed fully in bright sunshine. We were about to get cooked. David muttered something about Jeff Renner and mostly cloudy skies. Oh well, there are worse places to spend a hot summer day.
By the way, we watched a ballgame. An awesome ballgame; the home team won on the strength of a couple of home runs and some great relief pitching. The Mariners were playing the Atlanta Braves, a team that has led the National League East for much of the season, but suffered it’s eighth consecutive loss yesterday. They looked like a team that is playing poorly on this long West Coast road trip. There were missed communications that led to runs Wedenesday on top of Tuesday night’s clanked pop fly off Bobby La Stella’s glove that cost them two runs and that game and both games in the short series.
By contrast, the Mariners looked better. I’d seen two of the three games against the Mets, when the M’s had struggled just to get base runners, let alone score. In this game, the Mariners scored in the first inning when Dustin Ackley singled and Robinson Cano drove him home with a double. Starter Chris Young got in trouble in the third inning when he gave up three singles and a walk to tie the score at 1-1. The next batter, Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, drove a ball deep to left between new centerfielder Austin Jackson and left fielder Ackley. They seemed to struggle with the sun and the ball landed behind them for a ground rule double. but the bleeding ended there, 3-1 Braves.
The M’s took control in their half of the third when Ackley led off with a homer, 3-2 Braves. That seemed to be the extent of things, when Kyle Seager singled to left, and was followed by an infield hit by Chris Taylor. With runners at first and second and two outs, Logan Morrison, a general disappointment among many disappointments this year, poled a 1-2 pitch into the right field bleachers for a three run dinger. M’s lead 5-3.
From there it was all downhill. The Mariners tacked on two more. Young seemed to struggle in the heat a bit and only made it through five innings. The bullpen corps of Joe Beimel, Tom Wilhelmson, Dominic Leone and Yoervis Medina did a great job of keeping the scuffling Braves away from further scoring and bingo, win number 59 was in the books. The Mariners were only a game behind Toronto for the final Wild Card spot, and a half game behind Kansas City, with the White Sox blowing into town for four. The final big news of the day was that Chris Sale pitched and would miss the Seattle series. Whoopeee!!!
Dave and I let go of the Braves ninth inning and walked to the train and managed to board the Sounder moments before it pulled out of King Street Station. We agreed it was a super day. The train ride, the ball game, the weather (though we were both pretty sunburned,) was perfect. We agreed that next summer we’d try to see every Mariners weekday game by taking the train.
Notes on photos: All pictures were taken from our seats in left-center field using a Nikon Coolpix P510. Though this point and shoot “bridge” camera doesn’t allow control over the shutter speed, it’s zoom lens gave me considerable ability to get good pictures from across the stadium.
As the trade deadline approached, the Mariners find it more and more difficult to score runs, and the second wild card spot slips further and further from their grasp, I was afraid Jack Zdurencik would panic and do something foolish. I was happy to see he didn’t. Though the addition of two right handed hitting outfielders, Chris Denorfia from the San Diego Padres, and Austin Jackson from the Detroit Tigers are not likely to catapult the Mariners into the American League West race, they both answered some important needs for the M’s.
First, both players are are at least average defensively, and an upgrade over the Mariners current outfield defense. Austin Jackson is a World Series veteran, starting everyday center fielder. They haven’t had a quality centerfielder since 2010 when Franklin Guttierrez was still semi-healthy, and the organization hasn’t developed a talented center fielder since that Adam Jones guy they traded away. Jackson has historically been an average center fielder or slightly above. Denorfia is average at all three outfield positions. They will be an improvement over the inexperienced James Jones and the aging Endy Chavez..
Though neither player is bringing a lineup changing bat to the team, they are both right handed which evens out a team that is unbalanced toward lefties. Jackson’s slash is .272/.332/.399 with an OPS+ of 99. He replaces James Jones with .258/.287/.313 and an OPS+ of 72. Though Jackson brings little threat of home run sock, his 25 doubles would tie for the team lead with Kyle Seager and Robinson Cano. Denorfia is having a down year at the plate and is hitting .242/.292./319. Though Denorfia has tended to mash lefties in years past, his splits for this year doesn’t show those kind of lefty killing numbers.
Most importantly, neither of these players cost the Mariners players who likely fit into the teams future plans. The M’s contribution to the three way deal that brought them Jackson was Nick Franklin. Though Franklin was a highly regarded prospect, the sheen on him was a bit tarnished. He struggled to hit at the major league level. His best defensive position was blocked by $240 million of Robinson Cano. The Mariners made clear their verdict on his value when they called up Chris Taylor to replace a faltering Brad Miller at shortstop. Ouftielder Abraham Almonte and reliever Stephen Kohlscheen were the cost for Denorfia. The Almonte experiment imploded in a mushroom cloud of strikeouts and misplays in April, and Kohlscheen is blocked from joining the M’s crowded, talented bullpen. Most notably are the players the Mariners did not give up-no Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, D.J. Peterson, no Brandon Maurer or Mike Zunino.
Just as interesting is who will lose playing time with the addition of these guys. One would guess Jones will head back to Tacoma to work on his game. Chavez may be gone too. Denorfia will likely form a platoon with Michael Saunders when he returns from the DL as long as Dustin Ackley continues his hot hitting. With Paxton likely to return from the DL this weekend, we may see the end of the Corey Hart experiment as well as other players, hitting marginally better than Hart rotate through the DH spot.
No, the Mariners did not add players who were transformational. The team will continue to be offensive light-weights, though improved by degrees. It is a big improvement defensively, and a very modest improvement offensively. Jackson is under contract through next year, Denorfia is just a rental. Those expecting the Mariners to be the offensive equal of the Angels or Tigers will be disappointed, but honestly those bats were never available. Look at the guys who were traded. The headline players were big arms–David Price, John Lester, Jeff Samardijia. Does this improve their playoff chances? Probably not. But it does make them better, and the Jackson trade fills a huge organizational hole at a minimal cost.