It might be possible for the Mariners to get closer to the annual baseball extinction. But the ninth inning of the 162nd game would seem to exhaust all the reasonable measurements.
The seasonal toe-tag was applied when the Boston Red Sox joined the New York Yankees as winners of their final regular-season games. That allows them to play in the single-game Wild Card for the right to advance to the American League Division Series against AL East champ Tampa, while the Chicago White Sox play the Houston Astros in the other division series.
For the 90-72 finish, the first 90-win season since 2003, the Mariners get a pat on the head.
Truth is, all those teams are better than the Mariners. They weren’t as close to MLB’s premier cabin as the delayed exit suggested. Club management knows that. Players will come to realize it after they watch whoever plays in the World Series. Discerning fans understand too.
The 7-3 loss (box) to the Angels in the final game was Sunday equal parts disappointing and revealing.
As the worst-hitting team in baseball, the Mariners weren’t going to get away forever with so much dependency on pitching and defense. The imbalance was evident Sunday — the burned-out pitching staff gave up seven walks in the first six innings and made two throwing errors. The offense was three-for-11 with runners in scoring position in part because the lineup has too many below-average hitters.
The offensive inertia also apparent Friday when they lost to the Angels, 2-1, an exasperating outcome that left no margin for error the rest of the weekend.
Yet . . .
In the long. slow chore of restocking the talent pool, the Mariners’ progress became sufficiently evident during the season, and especially in September. They won a freakish number of close games behind a bullpen that no one could have foreseen, including general manager Jerry Dipoto. As other teams swooned, the Mariners nudged, deked and feinted their way into a spectacle that drew sellouts of more than 130,000 fans for the final three games of the season, including 44,229 Sunday.
Of course, many were bandwagon fans. That’s how it is for every team in every sport in every market. In Seattle, some fans will never forgive the sordid history, others forgot baseball could be fun, and some are ready to be won over.
It has to start somewhere.
“The weekend, for me, was about the energy that they brought,” said manager Scott Servais. “It was tremendous, not only for our team and organization, but I think for the whole community. Baseball is back in Seattle.
“We didn’t get across the finish line, but I think everybody sees where we’re headed. I was really excited to see that many people jump on the bandwagon with us, because it’s gonna be a fun ride.”
Obviously, success has to be sustained. But if Baseball America is right in ranking the Mariners’ farm system as the most talented in MLB, the chances to fill roster holes sooner is more likely. And success also brings credibility in the trade and free agent markets among players good enough to have choices when the money is similar.
But because the Mariners’ process has taken so long — officially now, two decades without playoffs — with an often befuddled ownership as the responsible party, there are casualties. 3B Kyle Seager, for example.
As with star pitcher Felix Hernandez before him, Seager’s 11 seasons in Seattle produced no playoff games. His achievements were not All-Star quality, but his consistency and leadership in the perpetually churning Mariners clubhouse was a big deal. But because his final contract year at age 33 is a $20 million club option, the unstated belief is that he isn’t affordable in Seattle, despite his 35 homers and 101 RBI.
The transition became clear in ninth inning, when the outcomes with New York and Boston told all that even a win by the Mariners wouldn’t help. Servais stopped the game and pulled Seager. The players collected themselves around third base for a public salute to the team’s most senior player, who responded with hugs, then waves to fans standing and cheering. They earlier chanted, “Ky-el Sea-ger! Ky-el Seager!”
SS J.P. Crawford, tearing up afterward, told Root Sports, “I wouldn’t be in this spot without him today. We wouldn’t be in this spot without him. Helluva leader, better teammate, better friend.”
Part of the team’s motivation in recent weeks was to fill the void on his resume with at least one playoff game.
“I was genuinely hoping that the other two games, we get a couple of losses for us and then we go ahead and win — that was the ultimate goal,” Seager said. “It wasn’t a team where we were just more talented than the other team every single day. But you had a group that just collectively played together and they collectively tried to win every single night.”
By the time of his post-game video conference, an emotional Seager composed himself enough to joke.
“The pollen was really bad out there today,” he said. “I think the allergies were just getting to everybody. There was a bad breeze blowing in so it was a tough day out there.”
Indeed, a tough day of baseball. But looking the past the “pollen” and the club’s history of futility, progress was clearly visible.
The players did their part to restore baseball in Seattle. Now it’s up to the guys with the spreadsheets and the checks.