SEATTLE — A fitting end to this Mariners season came when the loudest cheer of the night was for a game 2,500 miles away.
While the Mariners were suffering their 95th defeat on Wednesday night, 2-0 to the Oakland Athletics, a good deal of the Safeco Field crowd was transfixed on late-season games elsewhere. And so, midway through the seventh inning, the home fans glancing at television monitors or listening on headphones broke into a sudden ovation once the Tampa Bay Rays hit a walkoff homer in extra innings to clinch baseball’s final playoff spot.
There wasn’t much else for the 20,173 fans to cheer for on a night the Mariners managed just two hits through the first seven innings. Seattle had already wrapped up the No. 3 overall draft pick next season by virtue of having the third-worst record in baseball.
The Mariners once again sent overmatched Anthony Vasquez to the mound and watched him allow the only runs of the game on yet another home run, this one a two-run shot by rookie Jai Miller in the second inning. Vasquez was pulled after just two innings and finished his seven-game stint having allowed as many home runs — 13 — as strikeouts.
That’s the first time in big-league history that’s happened to a pitcher giving up at least 10 long balls and somewhat typical of a second half played by the hometown nine. The Mariners auditioned 18 rookies this season, most of them in the final couple of months.
Not all belonged.
Those that did will be given more looks next spring as the Mariners attempt to bounce back from losing 95 or more games in consecutive seasons. The way this campaign ended was in stark contrast to how it began, with Seattle playing .500 ball and staying in contention right up to the final week before the All-Star break.
But a 17-game losing streak in July signaled the beginning of a massive movement toward youth that the team will now attempt to parlay into something more permanent. Mariners manager Eric Wedge termed the coming winter the most important his young players will ever have.
Wedge met pregame with his players to once again outline what’s expected from them this offseason. He plans to remain in Seattle on a permanent basis this winter and pledged to stay on top of the conditioning of his players — bringing them in to the city for evaluation if needed.
Such diligence was missing from the Mariners a year ago when Franklin Gutierrez’s progress from a late-season stomach ailment wasn’t followed up on as closely. Gutierrez wound up suffering in spring training from the same stomach problems and didn’t get thoroughly checked out until afterward.
He later missed the first six weeks of the season and didn’t find his batting stroke until August.
The Mariners can’t afford any more detours like that in 2012 as they attempt to placate a fan base that’s patiently waited for this rebuilding to take shape. Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik has said he expects to be busy this winter looking to find additions that can bolster his roster.
The youthful influx has given Zduriencik the potential trade pieces needed, especially if ownership does not provide any cash influx to strengthen his bids on the free-agent market. It’s been all about 2012 for a while when it comes to Seattle baseball.
And that’s why, on the final night of 2011, even most of the fans turning up to watch seemed as if they’d already moved on.