It happened. The Mariners returned to Seattle in late September with a chance to make the playoffs. In April, a $100 wager on such an event would have provided enough cash to buy out Robinson Cano’s contract. Then Friday night, the Mariners stretched the storyline just a little tighter.
Their traditional pennant-race exit on the Memorial Day weekend came and went, as did the Fourth of July, as well as Labor Day. Defying skeptics, franchise gravity and the known laws of baseball physics, they stayed in the race.
Sure, the prize was a confection called the second wild card, a final pander to the people from the junta of retiring baseball strongman Bud Selig. But the single-game play-in would still count as playoffs, something the Mariners hadn’t experienced in 13 years.
Initial drama was bled from the weekend by a cruel 4-7 road trip through three time zones that included a five-game losing streak, leaving the Mariners faces pressed against the window. The starting pitching collapsed and the offense remained enfeebled. Only 26,865 showed up to Safeco Field, and many of them were there for all the giveaway goodies on Fan Appreciation Night.
By the third inning, the national baseball feel-good story of the evening was the Kansas City Royals making the playoffs for the first time in 29 years, when President Reagan said it was Morning in America.
It was night in Seattle, because the Royals’ 3-1 win over Chicago (ex-Mariner Hector Noesi gave up all the runs) locked up the first wild card spot. Then moments later came news that the Oakland Athletics beat the Rangers 6-2 in Texas, which meant that the A’s would do no worse this season than tie with the Mariners for the second wild card.
The Mariners were left with no choice: Win. Then win Saturday, then win Sunday.
One down, two to go.
“Game 161 and we’re still in it — it’s awesome,” said Dustin Ackley after the Mariners’ 4-3 triumph over the Angels. “For us to be where we are after losing five in a row . . . we’re still in it.”
They are. Tenuously. But Lloyd McClendon, the manager of right here, right now, couldn’t be happier.
“We still have meaningful games,” said the Seattle boss. “It’s pretty damn good.
“This team has been resilient all season. I like where we are.”
Hero of the evening was starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, who climbed back up the cliff he had fallen from his last six starts and gave the Mariners 6.1 innings of four-hit, two-run ball. After a bout of stiffness in his back and groin, he regained the command and form that helped get the Mariners to the precipice.
“It’s not a big thing,” he said. “I feel like I flew way too open on that slider, and I kind of felt it stretch down here in my lat (rib muscle). I think (coming out) was just more a precaution.”
The offense muscled up three home runs — in the second, a solo by Kendrys Morales, followed two batters later by Michael Saunders, who brought home Logan Morrison, and a solo by Ackley in the fifth — that countered back-to-back blows from the Angels’ Kole Calhoun and Mike Trout.
That set up the standard ninth-inning dramatics from closer Fernando Rodney. Attempting to hold a 4-2 lead against his former team, Rodney struck out the formidable Albert Pujols. Then Howie Kendrick legged out an infield single and a pinch-runner came home on a double by Erick Aybar.
As the crowd took to its feet, Rodney induced David Freese to fly out and Brennan Boesch to ground out, and another meaningful game was set for 6 p.m. Saturday.
Credit must go to the Angels for fielding a lineup of their usual varsity athletes, including starter Jered Weaver, even though they clinched the AL West Division title a week earlier. That could change, because the Angels achieved their final seasonal goal, finishing with the league’s best record, to assure home field advantage in the playoffs.
“I think it’s a great accomplishment,” said Angels manager Mike Scioscia. “We want to finish strong these next two games and get ready for Thursday,” the start of the AL Division series against the winner of Tuesday’s single-game elimination between Kansas City and the Oakland-Seattle survivor.
But will they finish strong, or will they give their stars some rest? That will be part of the drama Saturday, when Mariners rookie James Paxton looks to make up for a bad outing in Toronto against Angels veteran C.J. Wilson.
One down, two to go. With a little help from their friends in Texas, whose game with Oakland starts an hour earlier. It will be a great late summer night for scoreboard watching.
Should the Mariners win two and the A’s lose two, a playoff game between the teams will be held Monday at Safeco. The Mariners won the home field advantage by winning the season series 10-9. The Mariners also will win the season series with the Angels, which stands 10-7 . . . The Seattle chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America presented its annual awards Friday night. Mastering the obvious, the writers chose Robinson Cano as offensive player of the year and Felix Hernandez . . .