BY Art Thiel 07:45PM 09/28/2014

Thiel: No playoffs, but Mariners gain some cred

The Mariners swept the Angels, including 4-1 Sunday, but were one win short of moving on. The season was a big uptick, but questions remain about sustainability.

Robinson Cano came up for a standing ovation when he departed the game Sunday. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest file

The moment the Athletics-Rangers game went final upon Safeco Field’s out-of-town scoreboard Sunday, groans burbled through the rambunctious gathering of 40,823. In the Mariners dugout, TV cameras caught Felix Hernandez dropping his head, his shoulders sagging.

“Man, you guys see everything,” he said, smiling, to a gaggle of reporters in the clubhouse. Well, Felix, stretch drives in major league baseball are an intense public spectacle, and lots of people this weekend were, like first-time tourists to Las Vegas, staring at everything.

Since the Mariners have been 13 years gone from a must-win game, it seemed new. Some fans have died, some have grown up, some have moved on, some have moved in. New for them.

New for you, too. It looked like you might have cried.

“No,” he said, then he paused and smiled. “Kinda . . . almost . . . (tears) didn’t come out.”

What a representative feeling for many: Trying to be logical in the presence of sports heartbreak.

From 30,000 feet, it is possible to remain skeptical of a long-moribund franchise that seemed to get passels of breaks. They lost 11 of the final 19 games in September and still stayed in the playoff race until the fifth inning of the 162nd and final regular-season contest.

Up close, they swept three games from the season’s best team, the Los Angeles Angels, including 4-1 Sunday, to finish 87-75, a 16-game improvement from 2013. They offered repeated bursts of above-average competence that produced not only contention, but hope amid the sadness of falling a game short of recognizable validation.

“It was a very emotional day for all  of us,” said Lloyd McClendon, the manager who pulled more from his guys than many thought was there. “I said when I took this job that we were entering a golden age, and they haven’t let me down.”

The eye-rolls that greeted McClendon’s golden-age remark at his introductory press conference were so intense that Harborview Hospital reported an unexpected surge in emergency retinal repairs. The skepticism may still be warranted, because one season does not make an age.

But he did gain credibility, and the franchise did gain traction and stability after dithering for half a generation. They drew more than two million fans for the first time since 2010, decided to re-up general manager Jack Zduriencik despite widespread skepticism and controversy, and found a manager that managed up as well as down.

McClendon’s cool, knowing demeanor helped the Mariners survive an eight-game losing streak in April, and three other swoons of five games, including one last week on a brutal 11-game road trip. The slide put them in the clumsy position Sunday of needing the Athletics to lose in Texas to create a seasonal tie that would have forced a one-game play-in Monday with Oakland at Safeco, the winner moving on to Kansas City for a one-game wild card playoff.

Yet three consecutive wins leading to Sunday’s game put them on the brink.

“We’re still in the ring,” said McClendon pre-game. “Still throwing punches.”

Hernandez hurled haymakers from the start Sunday, striking out seven of the first 10 Angels batters, determined as he was to make everyone forget his previous start Tuesday in Toronto that may have been his career worst, considering the stakes.

He had a one-hit shutout going into the sixth inning of a game Seattle led 4-0, but it was largely an empty act since the Athletics closed out a 4-0 win minutes earlier to win the second wild-card spot.

McClendon pulled him from the game mid-inning so the fans could say thanks. They did, on their feet long and loud, prompting Hernandez to return from the dugout to take a curtain call.

“I’ve just got to say thanks to the fans for all of the support they gave me all year,” Hernandez said. “I love being here. I love the fans. That was really great.”

A little later, McClendon did the same mid-inning replacement for Robinson Cano, who finished an All-Star season hitting .314, which went a long way to justifying some of the$240 million, 10-year contract that drew him away from the Yankees to Seattle. He too was given rousing ovation, although not to the caliber of King Felix, the longtime local hero.

“That was great to see the fans do that,” Cano said. “Not only to myself, but to see the way they reacted when we took Felix out of the game. They really appreciated what we’ve done. They know we fought, and we battled.”

It was a battle, throughout the organization. The front office was slinging players up, down and around the system all summer in an effort to justify Zduriencik’s gamble that Cano was the one player the roster lacked for contention. When it was suggested to McClendon that this was a team built on the fly, he looked at his questioner with one eyebrow arched.

“Ya think?”

Consider that eight players on the 25-man opening day roster didn’t finish the season with the big club, at least as it looked prior to the Sept. 1 callups of minor leaguers.

Pitchers Erasmo Ramirez and Hector Noesi (forgot he was still here, yes?), catcher John Buck, infielders Justin Smoak and Willie Bloomquist and outfielders Abraham Almonte, Stefen Romero and Corey Hart largely disappeared, whether by poor performance or poor health. Called up from the minors were Endy Chavez, Chris Taylor, Jesus Sucre, James Jones and Taijuan Walker. Added at midseason via trade were DH Kendrys Morales, and outfielders Austin Jackson and Chris Denorfia.

The three trade acquisitions faded at the end, Morales hitting .210, Jackson .224 and Denorfia .195 in Seattle. The Mariners remain unsettled at first base, shortstop, center field, right field, DH and a rotation spot or two.

Having so many personnel questions unansweted is why it is foolish to assume improvements from one year will carry over to the next. This is not a roster with a stable cast of veterans who can be supplemented. The season answered only a few questions.

Whether by baling wire, duct tape or McClendon’s favored reward of ice cream, the Mariners figured a way in 2014 to pull out of the darkness. Whether they are headed to a golden age awaits further evidence.

But there is little dispute they re-introduced an element long missing from the Mariners org chart: Fun.


  • Matt712

    The finality, for me, began when the Ms lost that last home series to the A’s. It was the series that really started this September to forget. And showed me that, as a baseball team, they still aren’t quite ready to contend.

    As Spring rolls around, I’m sure the bitterness will have worn off and I’ll be able to look more wholly at the accomplishments of the season and how the team transformed. Hope will once again skew my emotions as I think about this magnificent pitching staff, a bona fide all-star in Robinson Cano, the coming-into-his-own of Kyle Seager, the promise of a true old-school power hitting catcher in Zunino, and the words “Hey, listen…” from a man who reminded us all why the position is called “Manager.”

    But I don’t want to sound too congratulatory, because for right now I’m still pissed. That magnificent pitching staff unraveled top to bottom when it mattered most; $240 million is too much money for 14 HR and 83 RBI (That’s Ichiro baseball); and Lloyd was too often the victim of his own line-up alchemy, especially down the stretch with the roster additions; Plus, just when Ackley was finally consistently proving he belonged, he goes down with an injury. …Mariners!!

    So frustrating. And yet, so frustrating in late September!

  • Jamo57

    Congratulations to the Mariners for keeping their fans entertained all the way to game 162 (or more perhaps more importantly for them, week 4 of the NFL regular season, not the pre-season).

    I hope for everyone’s sake that achievement does not constitute the ‘Golden Age’ McClendon predicted at his introductory press conference…..

    Then again, this is the same team that did a victory lap and carried players off the field after finishing third and then rebroadcast the game in the middle of winter, citing it as a ‘classic’.


  • dave

    It was a very good year, gut wrenching, and sad. What is sad is that the post-season was within reach, and we fell one game short. What is gut wrenching is the monsterous road trip, absolutely inexcusable, the M’s did well winning 4 of 11. Toronto paid us back for eliminating them about a month ago.
    Lloyd gets a B from me. Masterful with the pitching, doing fairly well with the infield, (give Seager a day or two off!), and he didn’t have a clue about how to manage the outfielders.
    1) Abraham Almonte
    2) Austin Jackson playing everyday, while he lost 20 points on he BA.
    3) Platooning Saunders????? With Denorfia, who finished up at .198??? Are you kidding me???
    Michael Saunders is the best outfielder on this team. Easily.
    This team still needs a center fielder, wish it was James Jones.

  • GD

    All year long I was waiting for a 15-20 game winning streak. We have the pieces to accomplish that. We won a lot of those 1-2 run close games that we’ve notoriously been losing every year, but we STILL lost too many 1-run games this year. Felix should have over 20 Wins and way less no-decisions.

    But some incredible accomplishments this year?

    1. Felix will win his 2nd Cy Young now, to go along with his ERA title, and his record breaking year of 16 consecutive games with 7inns and less than 2 runs.

    2. Cano was the staple in our lineup that showed strong consistency through 162 games all year long.

    3. Seager? If you had to choose Donaldson or Seager, my money is on that we all would choose Seager. He is a monster at Safeco Field, and we haven’t had someone bat this incredible at Safeco consistently. He’s Cano JR at 3B!!!

    4. Since August 1st, LoMo was playing at the level of Trout. Don’t know if that can be sustained into 2015, but LoMo sure opened many eyes this 2nd half, which will make buying out Smoaks $150,000 2015 contract a lot easier to swallow.

    2015 Rotation:


    But our rotation got a little tired out the last 2 weeks of the season. Our committed contracts for 2015 are sitting at $61m at this moment, prior to picking up any options and Arbitration figures. Here is my Offseason wish list:

    1. Seattle willing to expand payroll to $130M.

    2. Sign one of Lester/Scherzer/Shields (I prefer Lester since Safeco favors LHPs)

    3. Add two (2) big bats, preferably: Victor Martines & Cuban 24 yr old Yasmany Tomas RH Power Corner OFer is the best available on the market

    MLBTRADERUMORS: “Tim Dierkes ushered in a new season of MLBTR’s recurring series Free Agent Profilewith his prediction of a seven-year, $105MM contract for Cuban outfielder Yasmany Tomas.”

    4. Negotiate contract extension with Seager, and buyout at least 2 years of his FA.

  • GD

    We have an amazing Farm System too, and Z kept our Farm in tack at the trading deadline. JD Peterson is one that I would expect to replace LoMo if LoMo falters in the 1st half.

    Landing Lester, Victor Martinez, and Cuban RHB Tomas and picking up Iwakuma’s option along with Arb numbers Seattle shouldn’t be much more than $120m in 2015. GO MARINERS! Offseason is my favorite time of the year for Baseball!

  • jafabian

    This was an awesome weekend for Mariner baseball. Saturday was electric! I haven’t seen an atmosphere like what at Safeco on Saturday in a long time. Felix came out throwing heat on Sunday. That’s the first time I saw some hunger in this team. I’m anxious to see this kind of growth continue next season. This team isn’t going to take it day-to-day anymore.

    Curious as to what will happen with Smoak and Montero. With no solid hitters on the free agent market Jack Z. will have to considering doing some trades in the offseason for the team to remain competitive with the rest of the AL West rather than picking off the scrap heap like he usually does and hope he gets lucky.