From 30,000 feet, the Mariners appear as they almost always have: No playoffs in 20 years, no World Series appearance ever, still living on The Double by Edgar Martinez — an entire generation grown to adulthood without seeing it live, yet endlessly on the broadcasts.
But from 1,000 feet, things look a little different. For that, I have one word for the franchise that may surprise you:
The Mariners were forced to swallow a figurative bowling ball, yet played on with some valor.
In the most demanding, confounding season in MLB history, the Mariners, against all the physics of the baseball universe, are still in contention for a playoff berth in the stubby regular season that ends Sunday.
The chance is meager — the Mariners (25-31) have to win their remaining four games in Oakland while the Toronto Blue Jays (29-27) have to lose all their games at home to Baltimore, to gain the second and final wild card spot in the expanded, eight-team American League playoffs.
But the fact there is even a nano-magic number entering the final weekend exceeded the most drunken optimism in the long-ago times of late July, when the club began what could only be considered extended spring training for another step-back year.
Instead, the Mariners finished the home season Wednesday with their first home-series win (2-1) over the Houston Astros since April 2016. Unheralded Nick Margevicius, a waiver claim in January from San Diego, pitched six shutout innings to out-duel Astros ace Zach Greinke in a 3-2 triumph that denied the Astros (28-28) a chance to clinch a playoff berth.
The victory may seem a trifle to the rest of baseball, but that’s because they don’t recall the Mariners going 1-18 against Houston last year.
“We finished with a winning record (14-10) at home,” said manager Scott Servais, smiling, after the game. “I wish we had a few more at home.”
The sardonic reference was to six home games that had to become road contests because of smoke from wildfires and anger over racial injustice kept the contests from being played in Seattle.
The dislocations were just part of the tumult, which has so far included at least 43 postponements.
For the Mariners, the late run to modest contention was more like whipped cream. The cake was identifying young, legit MLB talent.
They have developed the foundation of an MLB average-or-better starting rotation, led by Marco Gonzales, a top-10 AL pitcher. Margevicius’s quality start Wednesday was the 13th by a Mariners pitcher 25 or younger, most in the majors this year.
In CF Kyle Lewis, they have the probable American League rookie of the year. In 1B Evan White, an already great fielder, they have a serious power bat. During the season, they acquired C Luis Torrens and INF Ty France, who had impressive starts to their Seattle careers.
Also notably, the club was sufficiently disciplined to avoid spreading the coronavirus. They had only a single COVID-19 positive test, a preseason episode with reliever Yoshihisa Hirano that produced no team consequences.
There’s no good-hygiene award his year in MLB. But given the convulsions to routine, schedule and travel by the various external plot twists, they must be credited for not resembling Bruce Willis’s character John McClane at the end of Die Hard.
Before the final home game, Servais took some justifiable pride in his club’s ability to remain on an uptick amid the uncertainties.
“It’s only a third of a regular season, and it’s hard to fathom everything that’s happened this year,” he said via Zoom. “From having two different spring trainings, to postponing a game in San Diego to make a statement (about racial injustice). We’ve dealt with the wildfires and and had to play (home) games on the road.
“The number of transactions, the alternate training site, no minor leagues . . . You can go on and on.”
Maybe it was because most everyone on the youngest Opening Day roster in MLB was happy to be here. But Servais said the group culture remained positive despite all.
“You can look for excuses and things that make it not fun; it’s just not normal,” he said. “But I will say, with our group and I can speak personally here, I’ve had a ton of fun this year. I really have. I think the biggest thing for me and our team is that we came in with the right attitude. Grateful we get the opportunity to play. I didn’t think I’d ever say that.
“You just kind of assumed so many things in our lives. It’s just easy to go the grocery store, go out to a restaurant or just the freedom to do what you want to do. When the game got taken away from us for a few months, it does make you stop and think, like, I just hope we get a chance to come back and play.”
They played more quality games than anyone expected. The personnel vulnerability was the bullpen.
According to an MLB.com story this week, five relievers are on the injured list, three have recently returned from the injured list, three have been traded and seven have spent time at the alternate training site or been released. That accounting doesn’t include Andres Munoz, a reliever acquired at the trade deadline who was already on the IL after Tommy John surgery.
The chaos explains a lot about why the Mariners have the AL’s worst bullpen ERA at 5.90, and why a playoff bid was hard to take seriously. Which didn’t mean fringe contention wasn’t worthwhile.
“When we put some nice streaks together and everybody got excited about a chance to make a run at the playoffs, we felt it was good thing for players to go through it,” Servais said. “But we understand where we are as an organization in our development.
“The whole plan all year was continue to get better. I think we have.”
They also did it without burning service time for top prospects Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert. Entertaining as it would have been to use the future stars for two or three wins to break the playoff drought, the Mariners would have little chance against a No. 1 seed. Just getting through this dyspeptic 60-day trial without getting or making anyone sick was a competitive achievement.
From 30,000 feet, all that can be seen is an empty stadium. Closer to the ground, there’s something going on.