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Sports >  Seattle Mariners

Commentary: Mariners’ malaise taking the fun out of long-awaited postseason pursuit

Sept. 29, 2022 Updated Thu., Sept. 29, 2022 at 4:56 p.m.

With a playoff spot within reach, shortstop J.P. Crawford and the Seattle Mariners need to put recent struggles behind them.  (Joshua Gunter/Tribune News Service)
With a playoff spot within reach, shortstop J.P. Crawford and the Seattle Mariners need to put recent struggles behind them. (Joshua Gunter/Tribune News Service)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.

When people envisioned the long-awaited end of the Mariners’ interminable playoff drought, I suspect they foresaw them strutting in with a blaze of glory. It was going to be a smooth ride to the finish, capped by the wild clubhouse celebration that everyone has been dreaming about for, oh, two decades. No stress, no mess, except maybe a messy locker room, what with all that champagne.

You don’t have to go back too long for that scenario to have seemed not only realistic, but likely. Maybe just as long as Sept. 11 – less than three weeks ago – when Julio Rodriguez and Eugenio Suarez homered in the ninth inning against Atlanta to cap as rousing and rewarding a victory as has been experienced here in years.

With a healthy six-game lead in the wild card at the time, and an cushy closing schedule over the final 20 games, the Mariners were set up about as neatly as possible for a textbook September/October coronation.

Well, now. What we have had instead as the Mariners sputter and limp to the finish is nothing but angst and tension, leavened by anger. What should be the feel-good portion of the season instead devolved into increasing horror and dismay as the Mariners played their worst ball of the season at absolutely the most inopportune time.

Before the Mariners restored some order on Wednesday with a 3-1 win over Texas, some fans seemed to be viewing this rotten stretch as a betrayal, as if they have been cheated out of their tacitly promised giddy waltz to the finish line. And considering the heartbreak and misery this team has dished out over the years, it’s an understandable reaction.

The Mariners remain in commanding position to grab a playoff spot, with their magic number reduced to two Thursday even before their night game against Texas. And eventually that feat should and will be duly celebrated. But the sentiment that had been growing that the Mariners would be a team to be reckoned with in the postseason is under hasty re-evaluation. Frankly, for the past two weeks-plus they have looked like one of the worst teams in baseball (cemented by eight losses in the past 11 games entering Wednesday, against the verified worst teams in baseball).

Just two weeks ago, the Mariners seemed on track to wrap up the No. 1 wild-card seed, which would give them all three games of the first round at home. Now their chances of catching Toronto for that spot are dimming. Instead, they are facing a best-of-three series in Toronto or Cleveland. If they lose that – and they would need a rapid upgrade in performance to avoid such a fate – the Mariners’ 21-year playoff drought would end without them getting a single game at home.

If a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear it? If a playoff drought ends exclusively on the road, does anyone embrace it?

There are explanations for the Mariners’ malaise, starting with monumentally ill-timed injuries to Rodriguez and Suarez. The massive import of Julio as an on-field force and off-field energizer has been hammered home by his absence. He may be just 21, a rookie, but J-Rod is the engine that drives this team. Suarez has been its most dangerous power hitter, on a surge of six home runs in a span of seven games when he injured his finger.

Rodriguez hopes to return from his back injury for the final series against Detroit, and Suarez returned Tuesday, albeit as a DH only – and not resembling his preinjury self with three strikeouts. But he had a highly encouraging three-hit night on Wednesday that bodes well for the Mariners’ future. It will be imperative for those two to regain some semblance of their preinjury forms for the Mariners to have any chance to advance in the postseason.

But the Mariners’ woes have extended beyond the absence of Rodriguez and Suarez. Other key players, such as Cal Raleigh and Mitch Haniger, have been slowed by injury. No one has picked up the offensive slack, and the Mariners had scored zero or one run in seven of their past nine losses entering Wednesday. And a game in which they scored 12 runs turned into one of their most soul-sucking losses in team history Sunday, a 13-12 loss at Kansas City, which trailed 11-2 at one point.

The defense, a staple of this team all season, has been ragged during this down stretch, as numerous players have been forced to play out of position. And the pitching, the Mariners’ true strength, is going through its most inconsistent period. Again, another possible harbinger of better times ahead was George Kirby’s strong six-inning stint on Wednesday backed by lights-out bullpen work.

It’s a perfect storm of factors that has led to an inevitable byproduct plaguing all slumps: a growing frustration that manifests itself in a team that’s pressing en masse, which leads to more struggles – and the vicious cycle continues. Manager Scott Servais talked before Tuesday’s game of the Mariners’ need to “get back to having fun, playing loose, joking around, getting on each other.” Then they went out and were shut out by the Rangers on five hits – not so much fun.

“Everybody knows what the goal is,” Servais said before Wednesday’s game. “And the goal is close enough you can grab it. The key is go grab it. Don’t wait for it to come to you. And that’s when you get back to being aggressive, be on the attack. Go grab it, win a ballgame.”

Which is precisely what they did. Baseball history is sprinkled with teams that struggled down the stretch, only to transform into powerhouses in the postseason. The 2000 Yankees were sailing along at 85-61 on Sept. 16, only to lose 15 of their last 18 games, including the final six in a row. They then beat the A’s in the division series, the Mariners in the ALCS, and the Mets in the World Series. The 2006 Cardinals were at 75-64 on Sept. 7, then went 5-12 the next 2½ weeks, including a seven-game losing streak, to sink nearly to .500. But they, too, had an epiphany in the postseason en route to a World Series title.

I’m sure you’re screaming that those Yankees were coming off consecutive World Series titles and had a roster filled with legends. Those Cardinals had peak Albert Pujols. The Mariners have a roster of players trying to find their way, gracefully, into the first postseason for most of them (and the first for all of their fans who aren’t yet eligible to drink). And make some noise when they get there.

Lately, they had been making a mess of it. And until Wednesday, they hadn’t provided much evidence that a turnaround is imminent. Fans are still yearning for a reason to let loose in celebration of what has been, when you can scrape away the misery of the past few weeks, a groundbreaking season. The Mariners just need to grab it and give it to them.

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