OAKLAND – There are times when baseball looks easy.
Thursday night looked easy for Seattle, a 7-1 win over the A’s on the road. Jump up with a five-spot in the first inning, then coast home.
There are other times when nothing looks easy in the slightest.
For example, take the Mariners’ past two months. On July 1, they were a half-game out of first place in the American League West and eight games up in the wild card derby. The fall from grace has been breathtaking.
In a tough-to-breathe way.
Seattle had to win Thursday or fall 6½ games behind Oakland in the race for the last wild card spot. As it is, the result brought them merely to within 4½ games. Taking two of the three remaining in the series provides a little air. Lose two and the 5½-game deficit requires supplemental oxygen.
Things looked bleak as ever in the first inning Thursday. With men on the corners, Nelson Cruz hit a smash that A’s pitcher Frankie Montas speared and turned into the second out, trapping Mitch Haniger between third and home. It was a rocket, sure, but with no net gain. Then Montas walked Kyle Seager and Ryon Healy singled home a run.
The inning should have ended there, but two muffed plays – one ruled an error, one not – by third-base defensive whiz Matt Chapman let in three more runs. But by inning’s end, the Mariners had five runs, one more than they had in 18 innings of the previous two games against the dreadful Padres.
“I’m still trying to get comfortable at the plate,” Healy said. “I think I’m like everybody else in here. At this point of the season, we’re not thinking about (numbers). Right now it’s all about the team. We knew this was a big game tonight.”
How big? The non-waiver trade deadline hits at 9 p.m. PT Friday, and the Mariners are now just close enough to the post-season that they likely can’t think of shedding anybody. Instead, they could look for a hitter – Josh Donaldson, Curtis Granderson and (dare we say his name?) Justin Smoak come to mind. Any of those could give the Mariners some badly needed sock.
No offensive boost will come from the minor leagues. The roster expands Saturday to 40 players, but other than bringing up a third catcher, David Freitas, the call-ups will be pitchers, at least to start. The minor league cupboard is devoid of MLB-caliber offense.
There was a time when it didn’t seem as if additional sock was needed. When July began, the Mariners were hitting .261 – their non-April high-water mark – with a .322 on-base percentage while averaging 1.20 homers per game. On July 1, they reachecd 23 over .500. But that win was by a 1-0 score. The meagerness proved to be a portent of the next two months.
After averaging 4.42 runs per game through June, the Mariners averaged just 3.66 since, going 22-28. Direct correlation? Yeah, just a bit.
Asked about it before Thursday’s game, manager Scott Servais smiled wryly and came out with the pronouncement of the month.
“We’re not getting any hits,” he said.
Oh, OK. That explains the .247 average since July 1, an on-base percentage that has tanked to .299 and less than one homer per game.
It is a problem that Servais and batting coach Edgar Martinez have tried to tackle, without any apparent success, Thursday’s seven runs notwithstanding.
“When you don’t get hits, it’s hard to create traffic and score runs,” Servais said, settling back onto the bench in the visitor’s dugout in the Coliseum. “I wish I could put my finger on one particular thing. During the course of the season you expect guys to get hot for an extended period of time. That hasn’t happened for a couple of our guys.”
Most specifically it hasn’t happened for 3B Kyle Seager. He came into the season a career .263 hitter. His average this year has been over .263 exactly four days, most recently April 17. He went hitless Thursday and sits at .218.
He says he’s tried maybe 40 different batting stances, but none of them remind the Mariners of the one-time All-Star and middle-of-the-lineup bat that he once was. If there is one player who’s been beaten by defensive shifts, it’s Seager, a lefty whose ability to pull the ball has been neutralized. In 2015, he saw defenses shift against him 36 percent of the time. This year, it’s double that. The tactic is working.
Then there’s Robinson Cano. He was hitting .287 with four homers and 23 RBI mid-May when he was hit by a pitch that broke his right hand. Two days later came an 80-game suspension for violation of MLB’s drug rules. He’s been back for a couple of weeks now, but his bat is still mostly on the disabled list – a .274 average after two hits Thursday, but with one homer and six RBI.
“I understand how this game goes,” Martinez said. “Early in the year, everything went well. Then it got to the point where we weren’t scoring runs and then the players tried to do more. And when you try to do more, usually it doesn’t work.
“I’m trying to keep these guys positive and for them to have a plan when they go to the plate. When things aren’t going your way (it’s hard to be positive). But it’s coming up on September, and given what we have in here, we can make a run.”
The Mariners have caught something of a break with the A’s unable to keep their starting pitchers healthy. Montas was starting because ace Sean Manaea just went on the DL and may not pitch again this season. A’s starting pitchers have combined to go on the DL 11 times this season. No one who began the season in the rotation is there now.
So the door is open a crack this weekend.
“I will say that we’ve still got (28) games left to play,” Servais said. “Some of the guys, the numbers are what they are. The way to look at it for our games is to say, ‘What can I go out tonight and do to help our team win?’ That’s the focus they need to have, and that’s the mindset they do have.
“We have to see if we can create some magic.”
For one night, they did.