Despite being well-trained and experienced, most members of the vast tribe of Mariners skeptics — that means that outside of the Root Sports broadcasters, I’m writing about you — were flummoxed by developments in Houston Sunday.
The long-expected moment had arrived, then vanished.
Every season one of the parlor games developed within the tribe is to pinpoint the game or series when the fragile construct of belief is shattered, and the Mariners slide into their traditional irrelevance. The routine is so familiar that it is a comfortable tradition, releasing some to care about the Seahawks third-string center, or who’s coming through transfer portal for Huskies football, or the new international signed by Sounders, or whether the Storm’s Sue Bird is, in fact, a cyborg of liquid metal Who. Will. Not. Stop. Ever. Until. You. Are. Dead.
Regarding the Mariners, my particular convention is to use the holidays of spring and summer as benchmarks for the Shattering. The first, Memorial Day, is usually when most Seattle seasons are done. A fair number manage contention until the Fourth of July. Rarely does the desperation for maintaining relevance reach Labor Day.
As the final holiday approaches in two weeks while the Mariners were a season-high 10 games above .500, things had become creepy.
What would happen if the Mariners were still relevant after Labor Day? (Please don’t write me about the distant proximity of a year ago; it was a 60-game stump season that barely started before Labor Day. ) The youngest members of the tribe have no lived memory of such a thing; the elders recite its rare occasions as mythology of the ancients (“A line drive down the left field line . . .!”) The best result would be disturbance; the worst, pandemonium.
Fortunately, the Mariners were having a three-game weekend series at Minute Maid Park in Houston, where they entered 2-19 over the past four seasons. They lost 12-3 Friday and 15-1 Saturday, making the Astros, at 73-50, look every bit the size of the Marvel Comics villain Thanos.
So Sunday had to be the day of the 2021 Shattering, the Astros completing a series sweep that would mark the fateful moment when order was restored to a Seattle sports summer.
It was the Mariners who snapped their fingers, winning 6-3 in 11 innings (box). The Astros certainly weren’t turned to dust, but the Mariners established that they can be thrown into and through walls and still be sufficiently resilient to have a word with the aggressor.
After Saturday’s loss, manager Scott Servais said, “They blew our doors off the last couple of days.” After the Sunday win, he praised one of this season’s many emergency newbies, starting pitcher Tyler Anderson, saying, “He calmed them down and allowed us to kind of get into our game.”
The Mariners’ game, as many followers know, is incrementalism until ignition.
They remain last in MLB in hitting, but have a knack for decisive home runs late. Sunday — down merely 2-0 thanks mostly to the shrewd Anderson’s 5.2 innings of changing speeds and precision targeting — they scored once in the eighth, once in the ninth to tie on a solo homer by Ty France, then four in the 11th, three on a home run by Kyle Seager.
Instead of the final turn toward seasonal oblivion, the win kept the Mariners (67-58 ) three games out of the American League’s second wild-card berth. They complete the road trip with games Monday and Tuesday in Oakland (70-55), which currently is tied for the second berth.
To have declared the annual Shattering would have been foolhardy. Servais has been trying to make this point for some time now, but the tribe is set in its ways.
“If you watch us play all the time, we’ll have the tough losses and it looks like we’re gonna fall off the edge of a cliff and everybody’s ready to jump off with us,” he said. “But this team just keeps grinding every day. They show up and come to work. They don’t worry about what happened yesterday.”
To his point, the Mariners had a brutal 16-1 loss May 21 at San Diego, when an episode of COVID-19 disrupted the bullpen and led to a three-game sweep. Despite the temporary loss of top relief pitcher Kendall Graveman and three others to quarantine, the Mariners won seven of their next eight.
In late July, following a spectacular 11-8 come-from-behind win over the Astros, GM Jerry Dipoto made the controversial trade of the popular Graveman to Houston that threatened to disrupt the clubhouse. The Mariners lost two one-run decisions to the woebegone Rangers, part of a slide of six defeats in nine that surely was the precursor of the Shattering. Since then, they have won eight of 11 heading into the pair with the A’s.
Sunday in the eighth, Graveman’s first appearance against his old club, he gave up back-to-back doubles to J.P. Crawford and Jake Bauers for the first run that followed seven shutout innings from starter Framber Valdez.
But the capstone moment that topped even Seager’s blast, at 446 feet the Mariners’ longest of the season, came earlier in the 10th, when reliever Paul Sewald, with bases loaded and no outs, struck out Carlos Correa, Jason Castro and Yuli Gurriel to permit Seager to take the stage in the 11th.
Said Servais: “Nobody else strikes out the side against this club in their home ball park.”
Sewald did a stellar thing. Graveman did not. The Astros won the series, but the Mariners averted the sweep, and the Shattering.
There’s still opportunities to declare the Shattering. But Labor Day approaches. Unease grows.