Rare as was the perfect game by the White Sox’s Philip Humber Saturday, something unusual followed it Sunday at Safeco Field — an important game in April.
The game wasn’t significant for the standings, or the national baseball scene.
It was vital for the 25 guys in the Mariners clubhouse, and frankly for the welfare of the franchise. Humiliation from the perfect game was so disheartening for a fragile team of youngsters and relative strangers, manager Eric Wedge pre-game felt compelled to address the awkwardness at length for reporters in his office.
“The only thing I can think about is what we can take from it,” he said. “I know that (the 17-game) losing streak we had last year is going to be part of our DNA. And now, for all the doubting Thomases in the world, this is their greatest day.
“So for me, this has to be my strongest day. It doesn’t change my thought process on what I know we’re going to do.”
Wedge’s strongest day, and his thought processes, were good enough Sunday to give the Mariners a lead — for two innings. The fourth and fifth were the only innings in which the Mariners led — for the three-game series against the White Sox.
Lost ’em all — 7-4 Sunday, 4-0 Saturday, 7-3 Friday. The DNA to which Wedge referred was visible to the 19,975 in attendance, none of whom needed electron microscopes. Instead of a double helix, it’s shaped like an L.
The 2012 team has squandered some early optimism, built in part on the empty calories of wins over the Oakland A’s, and is starting to starve for momentum and enthusiasm, much the way it has been for the past decade.
“We need something,” said shortstop Brendan Ryan, who said he was awake until 2 a.m. Sunday replaying his final at-bat Saturday against Humber. “You don’t want to bury yourself. It’s easy to say that it’s the third week, but it feels like three years.”
After a 3-6 homestand preceding a trip against three teams with winning records, the Mariners, 7-10 and losers of five of their last six, are down to grasping for old bromides about it being a good time be together on the road.
They were desperate Sunday to get out from the ditch where Humber, a pitcher of surpassing ordinariness, planted them Saturday. For four innings, it looked good — seven hits marbled with a couple of bad Chicago throws and a mediocre day from White Sox starting pitcher John Danks made for a 4-2 lead after four innings.
“I liked the way they came out,” Wedge said. “For a young team to have such a tough day (Saturday), they came out and competed. That’s what you’re looking for.”
Then they crashed — one single over the final five innings. As was the case against Humber, hitters began pressing. One of them was Ichiro, who already had two hits. With a runner on second and two outs in the sixth, Ichiro swung at the first pitch, hitting a pop foul easily caught along the third base line.
Wedge mentioned no names, but his reference was clear.
“I don’t mind being aggressive on the first pitch, but I want you to turn something around,” he said. “I don’t want you to push the ball the other way or foul out. If you’re going to be aggressive early, it better be your ball in your zone, and get the barrel on it.
“We’ve got to be more disciplined, better prepared.”
In more direct words, swing like a No. 3 hitter to drive in a run, not like a leadoff hitter trying to get on base.
The game’s outcome was hardly the fault of Ichiro, who made a brilliant, one-hop throw to home to cut down Kosuke Fukudome in the fourth inning for the third out. He also has the team’s highest batting average among regulars at .275.
But he’s no different that the kids in the lineup who are unable to string together quality at-bats. Nobody is hot, or even warm. This is part of what happens when nearly all the payroll goes to a handful of declining veterans and the rest to youngsters not quite ready. There are no prime-timers to carry the day.
When the offense quieted down against three Chicago relievers, Mariners starter Kevin Millwood surrendered a two-run triple in the sixth inning to Alex Rios for a 5-4 lead that was insurmountable.
Much as the perfecto was splendid for Humber and embarrassing for the Mariners, it was, as always, a one-off statistical fluke that has little long-term meaning.
More disturbing were the three losses that preceded it: The 9-8 loss to Cleveland Tuesday that included blowing an 8-1 lead; the 2-1 loss Thursday that included squandering one of the best pitching performances of Felix Hernandez’s career, and the 7-3 loss Friday to the White Sox that featured the implosion of young starting pitcher Hector Noesi.
Besides the offense — 13th in the AL entering the game — the Nos. 4 and 5 starters are now question marks, and the bullpen has had a series of misfires. It’s early, but as Ryan pointed out, it’s not too early to get buried.
The consequences of the Mariners’ DNA is visible in more than the standings.
Even though attendance is on a par with the first nine games a year ago — worst in Safeco history — the canary in the 2012 mine was Friday, when an Ichiro bobblehead promotion, normally a big night, drew 19,947. They had 20,000 to give away.
The 53 unclaimed trinkets provide a number more compelling than any sabermetric, because it measures apathy, the toughest opponent any sports franchise can have. Even free junk isn’t working.
The sell grew harder through the weekend.