Mariners come oh so close

The baseball team's resurgence this year is no guarantee of better results next year. But the M's performance reintroduced hope to a lot of fans.
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The baseball team's resurgence this year is no guarantee of better results next year. But the M's performance reintroduced hope to a lot of fans.

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 after a Mariners' victory that was rendered meaningless when the Oakland Athletics took the final postseason playoff spot from them by beating the Texas Rangers. 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. Longtime 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 conflict 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 on Sunday.

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 McClendon did gain credibility, and the franchise did gain traction and stability after dithering for half a generation. They drew more than 2 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 others 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.

On Sunday, 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 had closed out a 4-0 win minutes earlier to claim 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 a 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 ever 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 unresolved 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 bailing 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.


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