SEATTLE – For too many years now, the arrival of August has triggered the emotional divestment of baseball season for Mariners fans. With the ballclub hopelessly out of contention, it has been time to move on to other things, like football and back-to-school shopping.
Not this year. You can nitpick the Mariners’ weaknesses, or pooh-pooh the wisdom of the second wild card. But the fact remains: The race for the American League’s final playoff spot is deliciously wide open, with the Mariners smack-dab in the middle of it.
And that means that baseball is not only still relevant as the clock ticks down on the 162-game season; it’s a blast.
“To me, there’s nothing better,” said Chris Young, one of the saviors of the Mariners’ season, after racking up his 10th win Wednesday, a 7-3 victory over the Braves.
You remember what it’s like, right? Well, not if you’re still in grade school. But the rest of you, I hope it’s all coming back when you see Lloyd McClendon pull Felix Hernandez after eight innings to save his arm for the stretch drive, or rearrange Seattle’s rotation to have his best three for the upcoming showdown with Toronto.
“I told someone the other day, the season just started,” McClendon said. “August first, that’s when the season starts. Particularly if you’re in a race. I think you’ll see better pitching, better defense. Games will be much more intense. I think our guys are enjoying it. I don’t see anyone getting tight or anything like that.
“I told them, just enjoy the journey. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but enjoy it. See what happens.”
It’s baseball the way it should be, and used to be. The return of Lou Piniella this weekend for his induction into the Mariners’ Hall of Fame is a poignant reminder of that. Contention was a common occurrence during his reign, with all the accoutrements: the excitement, the anticipation, the welcome nervousness that lasts all day until 7:10 p.m.
These Mariners are flawed, no doubt. We don’t need to rehash their offensive shortcomings. But so are the other teams in the wild-card race, which should allow the M’s to stay in it for the long haul. Particularly with the presence of a pitching staff that has greatness at the front end and depth throughout.
The Mariners players are enjoying the charged atmosphere at the ballpark.
“It’s fun looking up at the TV screen and seeing what other teams are doing, and knowing that every game now counts,” Dustin Ackley said. “Especially with the second wild card. It’s huge to know we’re in it right now, and if we keep playing well for the next month or two, we have a chance to take that second one, or push for the first wild card.
“I think any time you’re playing meaningful games, it helps. It helps the intensity. I think the more intense the games are, the better, and the more guys’ talents come out.”
There are a few players on hand who can verify that sentiment, like Robinson Cano, who was in yearly contention with the Yankees, and Austin Jackson, who played in three playoffs, including a World Series, with the Tigers.
“Once you get there and you get a taste of it, you always want to get back there,” Jackson said. “It makes the long season well worth it. A hundred and sixty-two games, at Game 40, you’re like, ‘Ah, man, it’s dragging.’ But once you get down to August, the games start to mean a lot more and they start to matter. Each and every game matters.
“A couple of wins, a couple of losses can determine whether you make the postseason or not.”
The Mariners, of course, could still go into a skid that takes them out of the race. But with the security of the best pitching staff in the majors, and the presence of a back-door entrance into the playoffs – a second back door – they have a golden opportunity to stay relevant.
That means no more playing out the string with little more than stat-padding as motivation.
“It’s been really cool,” said third baseman Kyle Seager. “Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to do that in the past since I’ve been here. This has been pretty special. It’s a lot of fun, something that brings added excitement to the ballpark every day. When you’re in it, you know you’re playing for something more than yourself.”