OAKLAND, Calif. – Maybe it was because they actually played baseball on the final day of a 2020 regular season that at times seemed like it would never start, then later seemed like it might not finish, that it felt a little different than in years past. A feeling of accomplishment permeated, more than finality or frustration, as the Mariners wrapped up the shortest and weirdest regular season in MLB’s modern era.
Though it was only 60 games, a little more than a third of a normal season, this season felt interminable at times without fans, with face masks and the constant looming fear of a positive COVID-19 test postponing a game or a super-spreader event scuttling the season.
In the end, the result – the Mariners heading into the offseason after their final game, a forgettable 6-2 road loss Sunday to the Oakland Athletics, instead of the playoffs – remained the same.
“It’s always disappointing when you are going home and not making the playoffs,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said in a postgame video conference. Seattle finished the season with a 27-33 record, good for third place in the American League West.
“I really wish we had about another 40 games to play,” Servais said.
The longest active streak without a postseason appearance, which includes MLB, NFL, NHL and NBA, adds another year to the dubious distinction. It has now been 19 years since Seattle participated in the postseason. Defying baseball logic and their own roster limitations, the Mariners flirted with snapping the streak, aided by the shortened season and an expanded postseason field before being mathematically eliminated in the last week of the season.
Still, the unshakable feeling of hopelessness when it comes to the franchise’s future success, instilled through so many seasons of failure on the field and in the front office, doesn’t feel quite so heavy in fans’ conscience.
“It does feel a little bit different than previous years,” Servais said. “The thing that feels most different is I know that the majority of those players in that locker room are going to be in spring training with us. We’ve made the step through the transition and we’re going to continue to add talented players, maybe some veteran players here or there to help out, but the core of our group is going to be back. All the things that we’ve tried to hammer on this year as far as our process goes and what’s important to us, we’ve laid the foundation. Now we can just build upon that instead of starting all over again next spring.”
In a season with minimal expectations for on-field success beyond gaining experience and getting better, the Mariners exceeded them. And the step-back rebuild plan started by general manager Jerry Dipoto with the approval of team chairman John Stanton and CEO Kevin Mather seems to be progressing on the proper path and projected timeline. Of course, rebuilds are all based on potential and possibility, with success not a guarantee.
Servais and the players believe progress was made. But the optimism seems like more than a hollow trope or cliché about the future. The Mariners believe in their plan, their core group of players and what they accomplished this season.
“I think one of the things that’s probably toughest for everybody involved is that everybody feels really strong about how we played against the teams in our division here in the last 30 to 35 games,” Servais said. “We’re right there. And I think everybody in American League West knows that as well. You couldn’t say that last year at this point. We were still in transition with our roster. But I think as people see how we are built out, how competitive we are going to be, how many games are going to win, people are taking notice. Our team feels that, our coaching staff feels that, the whole organization and people outside the organization are taking notice as well.”
Marco Gonzales, the unquestioned leader of the pitching staff and one of the team’s veteran leaders, opened his postgame video conference by saying, “Man, I wish we could have seen this team over 162 games, definitely bittersweet. I think we learned a lot about ourselves this year and really set up a good foundation to go into the offseason and into next year.”
Gonzales made his feelings known to teammates in a pregame meeting where he and a few other veterans addressed the team.
“We’ve done a great job of developing a team culture and a team identity – a team that really goes to work and doesn’t take days off, doesn’t take at-bats or pitches off,” he said. “That’s critical. One of the things I preached is for our young guys, the guys who have been here for maybe a year, maybe just this year, to step up and really take ownership of their roles, and to be accountable of how you represent yourself and represent our team, so that we go forward we know who we are, and we continue that.”
With the opportunity to win his eighth game and bring his earned-run average under 3.00 in his 11th start of the season, Gonzales couldn’t quite deliver the kind of performance that typified his season. The left-hander, a former Gonzaga standout, pitched five innings, allowing two runs on six hits with a walk and five strikeouts. He exited with the score tied 2-2.
He finished the season with a 7-2 record and 3.10 ERA. In 692/3 innings pitched, he struck out 64 batters and issued just seven walks.
“For how different this year was, I am proud of the fact that I came into every start the same way, stuck to my consistent approach, and just put my head down and went to work,” Gonzales said. “And I think the thing that I’m most proud of is the guys around me who just stepped up and followed that lead and found themselves, and really grew into big-league pitchers and big-league players.”
The Mariners’ bullpen, whose struggles have been noted to the point of exhaustion, took the loss. Veteran right-hander Yoshihisa Hirano gave up three runs in the seventh inning while recording just one out.
Seattle’s offense, which could be explosive at times and absent at others, mustered just four hits and struck out a whopping 16 times in the game. Oakland starter Frankie Montas struck out a career-high 13 hitters in six innings of work.
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