At about 8:15 p.m. on Tuesday night, Sept. 18, batter Raul Ibanez jacked a fat one exactly where you hoped it would go and the Seattle Mariners doubled their lead at Oakland. It was 8-1, but the pertinent number was 11, as in eleventh hour. Unless an extraordinary, improbable, unlikely, perhaps unprecedented set of events followed for the remainder of September, the Mariners would miss the playoffs for the 27th time during their 31 years on earth.
But there were those of us who didn't much care. Those of a certain mind and memory (was anybody else there April 6, 1977?) actually have come to enjoy late-September baseball in this town because the pleasure and pressure of pennant fever (real or, more likely, psychosomatic) usually has long since subsided by now. What remains are opportunities to appreciate small wonders such as an Ibanez lunge for a grand slam that would nudge him into the 100-RBI range.
Soon to be adjudicated are the reasons for another season with no post-season appearance. The off-season assessments will commence in about 10 days, and blame for another stay-at-home October will rain upon the usual suspects: general manager Bill Bavasi and a shaky pitching staff with no stopper capable of stanching a pair of epic losing streaks.
As always, there's a palpable agreement among a number of fans that the 162-game regular season is meaningless unless a playoff spot is claimed. Staying home in October is easier to bear for those who have doubted all season that the M's would make the playoffs. We were scarcely surprised, for example, when Seattle relievers quickly walked the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth Wednesday, Sept. 19. Seattle led the matinee game at Oakland 7-4, which often means victory is secured this late in a game. But the Mariners had squandered the seven-run lead the night before, hanging on to take it 8-7. By the time the eighth ended, George Sherrill had issued the M's ninth base-on-balls of the game and the lead had been cut to two.
An inning later, Seattle won its 81st game of the year, meaning the team will avoid a losing season. Whether a winning year would be achieved was far from clear given six-game skids in April and June, a seven-gamer in July, and a kill-shot nine straight losses straddling August and September.
Any losing streak that takes a team through the rotation more than once is indicative of a roster without a star pitcher. Such is the case. New acquisitions Miguel Batista and Horacio Ramirez have winning records but loser earned-run averages. Jarrod Washburn and Jeff Weaver have the bad records (9-15, 7-12) to go with worse-than-Batista's ERAs (4.53, 6.21). Felix Hernandez, who needed 110 pitches to get through the requisite five innings and claim (one hesitates to use "earn") the Wednesday victory, has a respectable 13-7 record and an ERA dipping toward the three range. But he's scarcely a luminary yet. It helps that the Mariners have one of the best closers in the game, but the availability of J.J. Putz doesn't mean much when the team isn't in save situations. Obviously, pitching will be the challenge for the 2008 season. Given a 2007 payroll of $107 million (sixth-highest in the league) for a non-playoff roster, it's likely Bavasi or his successor won't have much money to screw around in a dubious free-agent market. The M's will have to lean heavily on a promising corps of young and/or farm-grown throwers. Most of them, including relievers who nearly made believers out of playoff-hungry fans, look exhausted as the campaign comes to an end.
Winning comes in various forms. The Mariners, who took the finale against Oakland 9-5 on Wednesday in a nearly four-hour game, finally mastered their Bay Area nemesis, taking 14 of 19 against the A's this year, with, next, four games against the division-leading Angels through Sunday, Sept. 30. If Seattle can find a way to take a season series against the Angels next year, fans may have something besides a Raul Ibanez grand slam to celebrate circa Sept. 19, 2008.