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Commentary: After another September loss, the Mariners’ season is slip-sliding away

Scott Servais and his Seattle Mariners are running out of time.  (Tribune News Service)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

The Seattle Mariners are rapidly losing control of their destiny. Unless, of course, their destiny is to author one of the most painful collapses in team history.

Remember when this 10-game closing stretch began four short days ago, full of hope and anticipation for the Mariners? Four playoff-aspiring teams within a half game of each other, two of them lined up for the Mariners to meet head-to-head — a world of possibilities within their grasp.

The M’s had what every team covets: A chance to determine their playoff fate, without the need of intervention from other teams. Control of their own destiny, in baseball parlance.

Well, four games into that stretch, all defeats, including an extremely disheartening and noncompetitive 5-1 loss to the Astros on Monday, and those hopes are shrinking like Seattle’s batting average with runners in scoring position. Houston ended the Mariners’ season in an 18-inning heartbreaker last year in the Division Series. The Astros didn’t end Seattle’s season on Monday, but its demise is now within sight on the horizon.

After getting swept over the weekend by Texas, the Mariners returned home full of renewed hope against Houston, a team struggling just as badly as them — worse, if getting swept by the lowly Royals is a barometer.

But the rapidly deflated home crowd couldn’t stem the tide. Ace Luis Castillo couldn’t change the dynamic. Resident superstar Julio Rodriguez couldn’t deliver the clutch hit in the third inning with the bases loaded and the crowd roaring, trying to will the Mariners back into the game. And Justin Verlander turned back the clock to author a gem reminiscent of his long reign as one of MLB’s most dominating pitchers.

Verlander took a two-hit shutout into the ninth before departing when Josh Rojas led off with a double — Seattle’s first hit since the third inning. Rojas eventually scored, but it was far too little, much too late.

“These games happen. We got beat. There’s no way around it,’’ grim Mariners manager Scott Servais said afterward.

If it feels like this season is slipping away from the Mariners, it’s because it is — rapidly and without mercy. They’re not quite dead and buried, but it will take an immediate revival over the final six games to save a season that once brimmed with highly realistic postseason aspirations. When they defeated the Mets on Sept. 2 to move into a one-game division lead, the Mariners’ playoff chances, as calculated by FanGraphs, were at a robust 90.2 percent. After Monday’s defeat, those chances stood at 27.6 percent and shrinking by the day.

So yes, they have dim life, yet the Mariners looked lifeless on Monday against Verlander. As was the case in the Texas series, they fell behind big early, and playing daily catchup is no way to run a pennant race. Neither is getting a mere three hits — all of them by the No. 8 and 9 hitters.

Asked how the team can rally after going winless in the first four games of their 10-game gauntlet, J.P. Crawford replied, “You know what’s at stake. I mean, that (expletive) is in the past. You have to look forward to tomorrow. We’ve got bigger games ahead of us right now. Nothing we can do about these games, terrible losses. All these losses suck right now, but there’s nothing we can do about them. We’ve got to keep our heads up, look at the positive side and get ready for tomorrow.”

The tomorrows are running out, however. After watching their rookie pitchers get shelled twice in Texas, the Mariners hoped to ride their ace, Castillo, who was 8-0 in his last 10 starts — all 10 of them Mariner victories. But the Astros shelled Castillo for two homers, a triple and two doubles en route to building a 5-0 lead that sucked all the life out of a near-capacity crowd that came ready to rock.

Out the window flew Castillo’s Cy Young chances, despite what Servais felt was maybe his best stuff of the season. And the Mariners’ lone chance to get back in the game expired in the third when Rodriguez, desperately trying to regain his August magic, grounded into an inning-ending double play to squelch that rally. Seattle didn’t have another base runner until the ninth.

The Mariners can be eliminated from winning the AL West as soon as Tuesday with a loss and a Texas victory. The solace for the Mariners, as they fall four games behind the Rangers and three behind Toronto, is that they merely have to pass one team to make the playoffs, not all three. And if they win the next two nights, they’ll move past Houston and back into playoff position heading into a final four-game series against the Rangers, their 2023 nemeses.

But the Mariners are not looking like a team with a surge left in them, at least not without an immediate transformation that Servais feels still resides within them. They desperately need a win to lift the pall that is hanging over the team.

The Mariners fell to 8-15 in September — and just 1-10 in the month against playoff-bound teams. They have lost seven straight games to teams other than Oakland. The Astros have given them everything but an engraved invitation to motor past them this month, somehow losing seven games over the last two weeks to the Royals and A’s — two teams with a combined 210 losses. But the Mariners are too engaged in their own misery to RSVP.

Suddenly, their destiny is looking bleaker by the day.