OAKLAND, Calif. – No one game is critical, Scott Servais will tell you (and his players will faithfully echo), and yet this one loomed as a gigantic marker for the Mariners. Disaster was lurking around every corner, behind every pitch.
A loss would have been, let’s face it, devastating.
Not fatal, but about as damaging as you can get at this stage of a season that still hangs in the balance for Seattle. To get swept by the team you are chasing, an Oakland team that is starting to believe it is touched by a higher baseball power, well, that would have been hard to come back from.
It’s a moot point, for now, because the Mariners pulled out about as tense and vital a victory as there is in a month that isn’t September, October or November. They won on a home run by a guy who never hits them, on a pitching gem by a guy who has mastered the art of deception, on the backs of a bullpen that kept wriggling out of danger.
They won 2-0 on Wednesday, in 12 innings, over an A’s club that the Mariners know they must somehow disabuse of the notion that they are a team of destiny. It was a small nudge in that direction, after two forceful pushes backward by Oakland, but it prevented what could have been another in a series of crises of confidence by a fan base that is constantly on a CSI-like hunt for signs of capitulation by the Mariners.
“We needed it,” Servais said of the masterful Mike Leake, who blanked the A’s on two hits over eight innings. “We needed every pitch, every out from him.”
Every pitch, every out. It was that kind of game, in a series of those kinds of games, the kind that the Mariners are resigned to playing all the way to the finish line, close and excruciatingly stressful. The kind of game that they had mastered at one point this year, but then so have the A’s, in fact turning the master’s degree into a Ph.D. and surging past Seattle.
“It’s a little bit of fun, and it’s very tough, because there’s so much pressure put on you, so much pressure put on the guys to get every single run,” said Dee Gordon. “It’s really tough but you have to try to have fun with it.”
No one had more fun on Wednesday than Gordon after he incongruously muscled a home run to right field in the 12th inning, just his second of the year, just the 13th of his career. Gordon nervously waited for the Oakland right fielder, Stephen Piscotty, to catch it, because that’s the way his luck has been going, but when he didn’t, Gordon danced around the bases behind Mike Zunino, who had walked.
With the preternaturally dominant Edwin Diaz lined up for the bottom of the inning, the Mariners knew that they likely had just won this game on the sweet stroke of their skinniest player. Gordon kissed his biceps – in the Bay Area, they called that Kaepernicking long before he ever knelt for the anthem – and was engulfed by his teammates in the dugout.
It’s down to 40 games for the Mariners now, and they sit 2 1/2 games behind Oakland for the second wild card. They have seven games still to play against the A’s as well as six against the Astros. Yes, the Mariners once led Oakland by 11 games, so there has been a 13 1/2 game turnaround in two months, but they are still within reach, if only they stop playing .750 ball.
If Seattle finishes out of the playoffs, yet again, as the M’s have every year since 2002, 17 years of ever-growing anguish, it will be, I maintain, the most maddening and frustrating moment in franchise history. They have had far worse seasons – more than 100 losses five times – but expectations were quickly trampled in those years. They have had agonizing finishes, such as the abrupt and premature end to their 116-win season of 2001. But you can’t get too melancholy about a year in which the team set a record for victories.
This time, they got their fan base to believe it was going to happen. They played so well early that a season without much anticipation or hype turned into one where the postseason suddenly seemed like an inevitability. In a way, they will be a victim of their own over-achievement. If it doesn’t happen, well, the wailing will be, I suspect, longer and louder than we’ve ever heard, this year’s team bearing the brunt of ever-mounting ill-will about the franchise’s longstanding shortcomings.
But there’s opportunity, as well. If they can pull it back together, the narrative can be transformed again. This year’s Mariners’ team can still be remembered as the one that broke the drought, that pulled itself out of a tailspin, that defied every prediction of its demise and far surpassed every forecast of the lackluster year they were supposed to have.
That’s what’s out there these next 40 games over the next six weeks – lots more days and nights like Wednesday, when it seemed as if everything was riding on that game.
It wasn’t, but who’s going to believe that?