On Sunday (May 1), the Seattle Mariners came within a late-inning single of putting up a 6-0 road trip through May Day. With runners in scoring position late in the game, Michael Saunders sent a sinking line drive to left that was caught to end the threat. During the ninth, Ichiro lost a ball in the sun and the Boston Red Sox won the series finale 3-2.
That the M's headed home 5-1, though, is a minor miracle for a suddenly 14-16 competitive club that — when it left Seattle April 24 at 8-15 — was all but left for dead amid the road kill of a decade’s worth of sorry seasons.
Despite the triumphs on the road (3-0 in Detroit; 2-1 in Boston), back at Safeco Field on Tuesday (May 3) the recent 5-1 wonders drew another Kingdome-like gathering. The announced attendance was 12,759. At game time, however, a home team just three off the lead in the American League West looked from the press box to have drawn about as many gawkers as you’d expect for an office softball game. That imaginary sky-high question mark hovering above the field seemed to be asking the supposed 12,759 customers and others:
I vaguely remember 1960s-era triple-A nights in Portland when my high-school buddies and I would sneak unobserved past indifferent gatekeepers into Multnomah Stadium and immediately divvy up the unoccupied seating sections we’d patrol for foul balls. We would’ve been right at home at Safeco Tuesday, where at least a dozen sections were uninhabited — unless you count the ghosts of better spectator times.
To end the Texas Rangers half of the third, Saunders caught a fly ball in center field. Turning to toss the orb to a souvenir-seeking fan, Saunders required two tries to get it over the fence and into the hands of one of perhaps 10 shivering patrons behind the “Dave Niehaus” sign in right-center.
The lack of fan support for a relatively resurgent club (just two games out of the division lead after Tuesday’s late-inning 4-3 win) seems to mean one-time patrons are waiting for something much better before they return in crowds numbering 25K and greater. Even with their recent success, the M's only bona fide emerging star is Justin Smoak, who recently returned from bereavement leave after the death of his father and has since been on an all-star-quality rampage.
Otherwise, much of the everyday lineup has been supplied with has-beens and placeholders, the latter looking southward over their shoulders to see when talent at the Tacoma level will be ready to head north and take away the veterans’ jobs.
Tuesday’s display came with a special fan bonus in that it didn’t feature Milton Bradley, the nominal power hitter who was serving a one-game suspension for lipping off to an official in Beantown. Many can think of other reasons to leave Bradley at the end of the bench; his .200 batting average and two home runs in 85 at bats come to mind.
Fans may not have to look much farther than Tacoma, where a pair of outfielders are tearing up the Pacific Coast League. Mike Wilson is hitting a Ted Williamsesque .408 with a mountain-size .714 slugging percentage. Johan Limonta has a .365 average after 63 at bats, many of them in weather somewhat less balmy than players experience at Safeco.
Members of the What-About-Dustin? club must be aware by now that Mr. Ackley, the big get of 2009, isn’t quite ready for prime time, mired in a triple-A hitting slump with a, well, Mariners-starter-like .211 batting average.
The big-league team, meanwhile, could be poised, if not for a pennant race, at least for a season of major-league-caliber play. Starting and relief pitching has been exceptional. If they’d had even marginally better hitting the M’s actually could be leading the division five weeks into the season.
Here, then, is a reiteration of what many must be saying in and out of the organization: Promote Wilson and/or Limonta ASAP. It’s obvious that this is a “building” season for the franchise. Why not build a little faster and, as the baseball romantics like to say about spectators, they will come.