In a season of awkwardness — sudden team achievement followed by even more abrupt ineptitude, a forced exit of Ichiro to purgatory, an 80-game suspension of Robinson Cano for PED use, a sex-harassment scandal in the front office, and an inability to improve a contending roster better at mid-season — the Mariners did avert another ghastly moment that may have eclipsed all of those palms-over-face episodes.
They won’t have to deal with a postseason in which Felix Hernandez, the face of the franchise, was deliberately passed over for participation.
After a string of embarrassments and humiliations, the pending absence of another weapons-grade cringe seems almost refreshing.
Man, is the bar low for the Mariners.
Who would have imagined that the failure to make playoffs for the first time since before Lewis met Clark could be seen as having a silver lining?
The prime directive of the season was to end what has become the appalling franchise appendage: Longest active playoff drought in North American big-league pro sports. In a sport bifurcating into a polarized NBA model of haves and have-nots, they bet they were a have. They lost the bet.
The front office used a respectable $165 million player payroll for a good mix of players on the rise and older veterans still near their primes. But they had little margin for error because for most of a decade, they traded prospects to get the players they could roll with in 2018. If this group failed, there were no farm kids ready to at least cause intrigue, if not rescue the enterprise.
They failed, or are at least are drowning, with only seat cushions as flotation devices.
On July 3, starter Wade LeBlanc helped beat the Angels 4-1, the club’s eighth win in a row, to reach 55-31, a half-game behind the AL West lead of the Houston Astros. Since then, the Mariners are 24-35 after the 5-4 loss Wednesday to the National League’s worst team, the San Diego Padres, which swept the four-game series against Seattle.
Worse, the raggedy-ass Oakland A’s, perpetual street urchins on baseball’s Park Avenue, passed them. Barring a collapse, the A’s will play the Yankees in the wild-card playoff game despite losing to injury the entirety of their starting rotation that began the season.
Double worse, the A’s, historically beset by lousy attendance, a lousier stadium and bleak prospects for a new park, will make the playoffs for the sixth time in the 17 years since the Mariners’ last appearance, in the karma-exhausting season of 2001.
That’s 17 years as Elmer Fudd to Billy Beane’s Bugs Bunny, despite the revenues that accrue to the Mariners’ four-state monopoly operation that includes a top-tier stadium and its own regional sports network. The garlic fries remain good, however.
Which brings us back to Hernandez and the decline of his prowess after all of his years as the prime reason to come to the park.
At 32 with a lot of hard miles, Hernandez has not had a win in his past 10 starts, which includes seven losses, plus one relief appearance. In hindsight, the lone bullpen outing Aug. 14 against Oakland, after James Paxton was struck on his pitching arm by a comebacker, may have been The King’s finest hour of the season.
In 5.2 emergency innings, he allowed two runs on five hits and gave the Mariners a chance, which is all that is asked of him these days. The appearance came four days after his demotion to the pen, ordered in a meeting with manager Scott Servais and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. that was tense. As described by Scott Miller of Bleacher Report in a story this week, Hernandez nearly quit.
“I was like, ‘Should I just take my cleats and go home?'” Hernandez was quoted as saying. Obviously, he didn’t. But his stay in the pen expired because the Paxton injury elevated Hernandez back into the rotation. In the four starts since, he pitched 20 innings and gave up 11 earned runs.
Not good, not terrible. Which is about where his career is, and can be said as well about the Mariners as a whole.
Since the postseason chance decays almost daily, the Mariners are no longer playing for the now, but for the future. Incredibly, the September calendar that seemed in July to be mostly prep time to set up for the postseason, is instead devoted to looking at a few younger players for 2019.
Hernandez need not pitch for the rest of the season. Just as he wouldn’t have been asked to start the wild-card game, nor, in the event of advancement, any game in a series.
But since he is owed $27 million in the final year of a contract extension he signed in 2013, he will be back next season. Which means awkwardness can continue. The Mariners have six starting pitchers under contract in 2019. Barring injury, Felix is No. 6.
To minimize the awkwardness, Hernandez should go back to the bullpen for the rest of September and take the off-season to get his head around being a reliever starting in spring training.
“Let’s face it, where he is this day and age with his stuff, he has to pitch to contact,” Stottlemyre told Bleacher Report. “He has to rely on getting the ball on the ground. He’s not always able to wipe guys out like he used to.
“With that being said, it’s really important that he gets ahead in good counts, and he’s in good counts with his fastball.”
Hernandez worked his way through the demotion once. The shock has passed. Now he has to do what numerous once-great MLB pitchers have done — embrace the opportunity to go out as a contributor.
Sadly, there is no cap on awkward drama per team. Hernandez can help by imposing one on himself.