Fifty games, Lloyd McClendon keeps saying. Fifty games before he’ll have a handle on the Mariners in his first year as their manager. He’s not pleading exactly, but he is insistent.
Just as eye-rolls begin, particularly after going down 5-0 Sunday, someone does something that keeps McClendon’s credibility afloat among the dwindling cohort of fans who have yet to quit.
Such as what Kyle Seager did Sunday. A solo homer from him in the seventh following by a three-run shot in the eighth, and suddenly the Mariners win a game 6-5 and a series 2-1 over the division-leading Rangers, a series already toe-tagged by the cynics after Felix Hernandez couldn’t hold a 3-0 lead Saturday night.
“I was really happy to win the series,” McClendon said. As to significance, he said, “I can answer better Tuesday.”
He referred to the first of a three-game series at Yankee Stadium, where the Mariners begin a long road trip. The New York media is perched and poised, awaiting the opportunity to pick apart the decision of former hero Robinson Cano to leave the Yanks for woebegone outpost of Seattle. The least the Northwest hillbillies can do for Cano is to come into town with zippers, daubers and confidence in upright and locked positions.
Overcoming a five-run deficit against a good team certainly helps in that regard. More important, McClendon said, is that the ghastly eight-game losing streak did not shatter them as it did many fans.
The players “all figured out that they survived it,” he said. “They’re OK.”
It’s also the way they did it — all three wins among the five games were won in the final at-bat: 5-3 over Houston Wednesday, 6-5 over Texas Friday and then Sunday, when the Mariners on a getaway day game started bench players John Buck, Willie Bloomquist, Stefan Romero and Cole Gillespie, as well as emergency starter Brandon Maurer.
For five innings, it felt like an NBA game when the underdog team tanks, knowing a loss helps advance their draft status.
In this case, the only advantage for the Mariners was resting some regulars for New York. Seemingly by accident, they won, thanks to Seager’s fourth and fifth homers in his last four games, as well as 5.1 innings of shutout relief from Lucas Luetge, Charlie Furbush, Tom Wilhelmsen, Danny Farquhar and even Fernando Rodney, the erratic closer who had a 1-2-3 ninth.
With two games left in the month the Mariners are 10-14, already assured of a losing April. Discerning fans know what that foretells — a losing season. Since the American League went to three divisions in 1994, the Mariners have had seven winning Aprils, and each time produced a winning regular-season record. Each losing April was followed by a losing regular season.
Since several injured pitchers are nearing their returns, the Mariners prospects brighten a bit. But none of the pitchers are a threat to help the offense, which entering the game was last or next to last in nearly every major AL stat category.
One of the causes was McClendon’s stubborn attachment to rookie Abraham Almonte as his leadoff hitter and centerfielder, when he is doing neither very well. Almonte is among the AL leaders in strikeouts, and chases fly balls in way of a shepherd pursuing runaway sheep.
But for the last two games, Michael Saunders opened at both spots for Almonte, getting on base three times (a homer and two walks) and playing center as if he belonged.
Before the game, McClendon took on critics of his insistence on Almonte and his .250 OBP.
“Everybody wants to make a big deal about Almonte,” he said. “We got a lot of guys not hitting. We got guys that should be hitting and have had time in the big leagues that aren’t hitting. I don’t want to put everything on this guy’s shoulders and say our offensive woes are about Almonte. That’s just not the case.
“If we’re gonna analyze this, and we’re gonna speak truthful about it, let’s analyze and let’s speak truthful about everybody. We got a lot of guys that aren’t doing the job.”
Can’t argue with the point. But we can take issue with the context.
From a year ago, Mariners fans already knew McClendon had a lot of hitters not doing their jobs: Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Brad Miller, Michael Saunders, Mike Zunino. The one guy who was doing the job in 2013, Kyle Seager, started 2014 poorly, but has redeemed himself lately.
If those younger position players started off close to major league average hitting this season, Almonte’s training wheels could be indulged. But since Almonte is new to the starting lineup, fans had a reasonable expectation that he would add something that was missing. But no. He made a bad thing worse.
McClendon’s request for a 50-game pause from condemnation is reasonable, but doesn’t take Cano’s acquisition into consideration. By the definition of GM Jack Zduriencik, the reach for Cano was timed perfectly to coincide with the maturation of Seattle’s young bats. To have anything less is to waste’s Cano’s first prime-time year in Seattle.
The eight-game losing streak sent all of the wrong signals, just as the first six innings did Sunday. They came against Rangers starter Matt Harrison, the one-time staff ace making his seasonal debut after 13 months away to rehab from three surgeries (two disc repairs, one shoulder). Against the Mariners, Gurney Man had a soft landing — two runs on three hits and two runs.
But Seager’s eighth-inning destruction of reliever Alexi Ogando, preceded by a double from Smoak and an infield single by Ackley, tossed another flotation device to McClendon.
“We just got to be patient,” the manager said. “That’s the one thing we don’t seem to have in this game is patience when it comes to young players.”
But after 12 years without playoffs, the hope is that McClendon can find some forgiveness from fans who’ve heard same from the previous half-dozen men who have preceded him in the job.
Seager has four consecutive multi-hit games in a row, tying a personal best . . . The Mariners second series win of the season was the first home series win over the Rangers
since September 2012 . . . Hisashi Iwakuma gave up three runs, two earned, in a four-inning, minor league start in Las Vegas Sunday. Including a bullpen session, he threw 86 pitches and passed the latest test on his rehab from a finger injury . . . Cano has a seven-game hitting streak in which he is hitting .423 with four runs scored, two doubles, a home run and four RBIs . . . Smoak has hit in five consecutive (.294) . . . Corey Hart has reached base in 11 games in a row, hitting .282 with six walks.