Four months into a season in which they have held their ground against the better teams in baseball, the Seattle Mariners find their pennant aspirations hinge on beating the worst teams.
Though they begin a homestand tonight against the team with the American League’s best record - Baltimore - 38 of the Mariners’ last 52 games will come against teams with winning percentages of .500 or less.
“Good,” pitcher Jeff Fassero said, “let’s go get them.”
“Good teams have to turn it up the last two months,” manager Lou Piniella said. “I’m not saying you bury the teams who have struggled, but if you want to win a championship you have to beat those teams.”
From this point on, the A.L. West championship likely won’t come from head-to-head play - the Mariners and Angels play just two more games this year. In fact, Seattle will play three times as many games (six) against National League West teams as they will against Anaheim.
“The advantage you have in August and September against teams that aren’t in contention is that they are playing to end their season,” Fassero said. “They’re looking at kids they’ve called up, they’re thinking about next year. I know, I played for Montreal.
“The biggest danger in facing those teams is letting down, looking ahead. If we play our best baseball, we beat those kinds of teams.”
No matter what the win-loss record of the opposition, the Mariners know their best is what it will take.
“If you go by what should be, this division race was supposed to be over,” Ken Griffey Jr. said. “Papers, magazines, the radio shows all said we’d run away with it. It doesn’t matter how things look on paper, you still got to play - every day. That’s what wins down the stretch, teams that show up and play hard and win tough games day after day.”
When Piniella held his clubhouse meeting in Milwaukee last weekend, one of his messages was simple: For four months, the Mariners had done their jobs.
“What happens in April and May and June and July is teams jockey for position,” Piniella said. “You don’t see teams do what we did in ‘95, come back from a huge deficit. So for the first four months you play like hell to have a chance the last two months.
“Look at the standings. A lot of teams that were contenders on opening day aren’t now. We’re right there at the top.”
With a schedule that favors them:
Only 14 of their final 52 games come against teams with winning records.
Thirty of those 52 games will be played in the Kingdome.
Eight games, including four during this homestand, are against a Chicago team that was gutted last week by owner Jerry Reinsdorf.
Seven of the Mariners’ last 10 games come against the Oakland Athletics, who began play Monday 27 games under .500.
“You still got to play, and ain’t like they won’t be trying,” Griffey said. “This team gets a lot of attention. … Teams get up to play us.”
Piniella has a solution for that.
“Win the first game of every series - exert your authority - and it gets easier against losing teams,” Piniella said. “You’re playing teams who know they have only one role in a pennant race, as a spoiler. Take them out of the series early.”
Against the 11 teams at .500 or worse that the Mariners will play, Seattle’s record to this point is 41-30 - a .577 winning percentage. Should that hold in the remaining 38 games against those teams, Seattle would win 22 of those games.
That would give them an 84-64 record, pending their 14 games against winning teams still left on their schedule. Against those teams this year, the Mariners have gone 18-15, a .544 winning percentage.
Should that percentage hold, too, the Mariners would finish their season 92-70.
The math, of course, is meaningless at this point. And Griffey, for one, doesn’t think 92 wins will be enough in the West.
“I’d like to get close to 100,” he said, “but all that matters is winning as many games as it takes.”
“The schedule gets easier; we’ve only got one more trip to the East Coast,” Piniella said. “We travel more miles than anyone in baseball - by a lot - and we play the majority of the last two months at home.
“It’s the time of year you start looking at the scoreboard,” he said. “It’s the time of year when every game means a little more. In April, this is what you hope for - that the last two months will matter. We made sure that happened, we got here. Now it’s in our hands.”