Last Tuesday, the Seattle Mariners were in an enviable spot despite a slew of problems. They entered the final week of the regular season just 1-1/2 games behind Kansas City for a wild-card spot. But the other teams in the postseason mix – the Tigers, Royals and Athletics – were all sputtering, to various degrees. And the Mariners had one thing no one else did: Felix Hernandez, pitching that night in Toronto.
The Mariners were in such a position for two reasons: Pitching and defense. But that night, in a 10-2 loss to the Blue Jays, both failed them. Hernandez, the former Cy Young award winner in pursuit of another this season, allowed eight runs in just 4-2/3 innings. The box score will forever say that just four of them were earned, but that’s because – days later – the official scorer changed the ruling on a bad throw by Hernandez himself.
Either way, it was a debacle. And it went a long way toward insuring that the Mariners would not end a 12-year playoff drought. When Seattle finished a victory over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Sunday afternoon, its fate was already sealed, because the Oakland Athletics had won earlier in the day, nailing down the American League’s second wild-card spot. The Mariners finished a game back.
That loss to Toronto isn’t more important than any of the other 75 the Mariners suffered. But consider the circumstances. Seattle finished the season by allowing 554 runs, one fewer than the Washington Nationals – in fact, the fewest in the game. Its team ERA of 3.19 was the best in the American League, second only to Washington’s 3.05 in all of baseball. Their bullpen ERA of 2.60 was the best in the game.
But when the Mariners grew closer to the playoffs – after beating Houston on Sept. 19, they were 1/2 game out of a playoff spot – they momentarily and suddenly forgot how to prevent runs. The next four days against the woeful Astros and Blue Jays, they allowed 10, 8, 14 and 10 runs. They were outscored by 32 runs – eight a night. They never were within five of their opponent.
(For good measure, as if to remind the Mariners who they were – a pitching juggernaut that struggled to score – Toronto’s Mark Buehrle tossed eight shutout innings at Seattle the next night, notching a 1-0 win that was the Mariners’ fifth straight loss.)
The Mariners seemed an odd fit for the postseason, in some ways, even with their pitching. Their .676 on-base-plus-slugging percentage was the worst in the American League. The offensive addition Seattle made at the trade deadline – remember, it acquired outfielder Austin Jackson from Detroit in the deal that sent David Price from Tampa Bay to the Tigers – posted a whopping .519 OPS with his new team. How would that through-the-lineup deficiency played against the power arms they would have faced in the postseason?
(A weird thing about the Mariners, too: They went 41-40 at home, barely posting a winning record, yet went 46-35 on the road. Only Kansas City and the Los Angeles Dodgers posted more road wins.)
If Oakland had missed the playoffs, the dissection of its collapse would have been epic, because the A’s appeared to be the best team in baseball less than two months ago. That the Athletics are left standing – and barely, because they must travel to Kansas City for Tuesday’s AL Wild-Card game – is due to Sonny Gray’s monstrous performance in Sunday’s postseason-clinching win. For 48 hours, at least, Oakland fans could forget the misery of a 9-16 September, when a division lead turned into a frantic, last-day scratch into the playoffs. They could dismiss the notion that, had this been any year prior to 2012 – when the second wild-card was introduced – they would have spent this week packing up instead of playing.
What Seattle experienced wasn’t a collapse, but a missed opportunity. For five days in September, with the taste of the playoffs on their lips, the Mariners forgot how to stop the other team from scoring. And for a franchise that has struggled to remain relevant – even with Hernandez as a front-line attraction – who knows when that next opportunity will come about?