Unlike other major sports, baseball has milestones related to the calendar’s holidays. For example: In Seattle, you can tell it’s Memorial Day because the Mariners are out of the playoff race. Occasionally, you can tell it’s the Fourth of July because the Mariners are out of the playoff race.
Rarely, you can tell it’s Labor Day because the Mariners are out of the pennant race.
But as with many things these days, normalcy has been disrupted. It’s the Fourth of July, and the Mariners are in the playoff race (standings).
I can’t tell whether the cause is climate change or the Trump administration, so I’ll go ahead and blame both.
Disruption, of course, requires adaptation for survival. So Mariners fans must adapt. Their club is not only in the race, the stratification underway in MLB has left the Mariners afloat and motoring with a handful of other teams, instead of sunk.
So unfamiliar is the circumstance — the Mariners (55-32) currently are in the fifth and final playoff spot, seven games ahead of the nearest pursuer — that fans have to learn the art of the casual dismissal of defeat, such as Wednesday’s 7-4 clunker (box) at Safeco against the Angels.
The Mariners struck out 15 times, made two errors and had other giveaways. Starter Mike Leake surrendered hits to seven of the final 10 batters he faced in four-plus innings, which cost four runs. The bullpen, rusty from disuse, gave up three more runs.
Yet they had the tying run at the plate in the ninth inning.
They played a crappy game, and still had a shot at their ninth win in a row.
Feel free to practice flicking lint from your jacket’s lapel.
“We did a great job putting a lot of pressure on them, we just didn’t get a lot of big hits,” said Mariners manager Scott Servais. “It does happen once in a while.”
See, Servais is practicing his approach to a defeat as an aberration, not a destiny. For Mariners fans, such a routine is like teenage sex — unfamiliar and awkward, but often worth trying.
The outcomes so far have bordered on the astonishing. The Mariners entered the day with MLB’s fourth-best winning percentage, and tied in club history with the 2003 team for the second-best percentage through 86 games. Since May 8, their 25-8 record was the best in the majors in that span.
Starting pitching has been nearly everything.
Since May 8, the starters have recorded wins in 25 of the 36 victories. That has been been in utter contradiction to the predicted outcome from spring training, when the club’s apparent failure to upgrade the rotation from the injury-induced debacle of 2017 was cited as a major weakness.
Asked about it, Servais narrowed his eyes.
“I’m sure you’re not surprised at all,” he said sarcastically to the questioner. Then he cheered up: “We’re happy with our guys. The big thing is how consistently they’ve been in getting deep into the ball game, and have been really efficient.”
Despite Leake’s game Wednesday, seven of his previous eight have been quality starts (six innings of three or fewer runs), including three games of eight innings each. His 42 innings in June were tied with Mets ace Jacob DeGrom for most in the majors. Only teammate James Paxton (43 innings in May) in MLB has more innings in any month.
As a partial result, some relievers have become too rested. Two who were called upon Sunday, Nick Rumbelow and Roenis Elias, had not appeared in a game since June 22.
“I’m really happy with our starters,” Servais said. “That’s how you win. People say, ‘Ah, it’s your offense.’ It’s starting pitching and a real solid bullpen.”
The results stand in stark contrast to the Anaheimers (44-43), forecasted to be the Mariners’ chief obstacle to ending the 16-year playoff drought. The win was merely the third in the Angels’ past 11 games, and the first in the past five against Seattle.
Much in the manner of what happened with the Mariners a year ago, the Angels have 14 players on the disabled list, where the average stay has been 31 games. They have used 49 players so far, six short of the club record. Twenty-eight are pitchers, including 12 starters and Shohei Ohtani, who is back to hitting (two doubles Sunday), but is unlikely to resume pitching soon.
One who came back from the DL was veteran Garrett Richards, Sunday’s starter. He strained a hamstring against Seattle 17 games ago, but looked healthy Wednesday, going 5.1 innings while striking out eight. He gave up back-to-back homers in the second inning to Kyle Seager and Ryon Healy, but was otherwise unmoved by the Mariners lineup.
A smart, veteran pitcher will stifle the Mariners lineup. No surprise there. The surprise is Leake, James Paxton, Felix Hernandez, Marco Gonzales and Wade LeBlanc comprise one of the best rotations in the major leagues. Will it last? C’mon, this is baseball. Nobody knows.
But if have in your backyard fireworks kit some spare ordnance, dedicate and send high a showy blue rocket. It’s the Fourth of July, and the Mariners are in it.