We all knew the Mariners were going to regress sooner or later. We all knew the crazy 14-hit games of the past couple of weeks weren't going to stick around forever. But damned if it didn't feel like this team fell back into symptomatic mediocrity with today's 4-0 loss to the Minnesota Twins, filled with staggering displays of offensive ineptitude and another bullpen batting practice session late in a close game with innings left to be played.
But to be honest, maybe we're the ones to blame. The Mariners came out of the All-Star break looking like a playoff team, and we bought the whole thing hook, line, and sinker. We never would have admitted it, but there was a tiny, tiny part in most of our brains that actually convinced us that this team was never going to lose again--or at the very least, never look this foolish for the rest of the season. Well, oops.
Aaron Harang pitched a very Aaron Harangy game today, lasting 5 innings and only giving up 3 hits with 5 strikeouts. This is the kind of fourth-starter performance good teams can put out every 5 days and sneak into the playoffs with. Unfortunately those teams usually back up their pitching with run support, and like the Mariners of yore, this team fell asleep at the plate time and time again. In fact, there was no scoring on either side of this game through 3 innings, until Clete Thomas grounded into an RBI out following what appeared to be a sloppy mis-called popup from Nick Franklin and Dustin Ackley. Having not actually seen the play, it sounded like Franklin went running back to catch the popup, and because infielders usually don't stop chasing until they are called off by the outfielders, the two had a bit of a miscommunication over who would catch the ball. Ackley has still only started a handful of games in the outfield, and while you would think the reverse logic of this situation would merge into his mind coming out of the infield to play in CF, I guess you can't really flip out too much. Or, it's easy to blame it on the new position. Or, it's a problem and we are convincing ourselves otherwise by over-reasoning the whole thing. Take your pick.
So, yes, the Mariners lost the game, and they have quickly come from sweeping two consecutive series to hoping to tie one with the Twins in tomorrow's game. It wasn't a complete wash, however. Brad Miller went 2-4 with two singles and two groundouts. Kyle Seager struck out in the bottom of the second, but followed it up with a walk and two back-to-back singles, proving himself to ever be the brightest face of consistency on this team. Seriously, I know we've talked about this a lot on this website, but with all the heartbreaking losses and pointless seasons we've been through recently, just think how awesome it is that our starting 3.8 WAR third baseman was a 3rd round draft pick, now playing on a $510,000 contract. Granted, he's probably going to cost a whole hell of a lot more than that in a year when he's up for a new contract, but damn. There is a reason we call him Boss.
Really, the most painful part about today's game came in the 6th, after Aaron Harang fell victim to a high pitch count and was replaced by a bullpen that seems like they would rather be playing beer-league softball. After burning through Justin Morneau and Ryan Doumit, Charlie Furbush gave up a 6th inning single to Chris Colbello, walked Clete Thomas (seriously what the hell is a Clete Thomas), walked Trevor Polouffe, and then handed the ball over to Yoervis Medina, who gave up his first career home run in last night's smoldering plane wreck. So of course, looking to one-up himself, he immediately walked in a run, and gave up a home run to Brian Dozier when he came back out in the top of the 7th. Oh, then he gave up another homer to Justin Morneau, suggesting that maybe all that dinger fun he missed out on for the rest of the year could be made up for in one game against the third-worst team in the American League. You know what they say, reach for the stars and all that--but maybe we could stick with a couple grounders next time.
So the rest of the game continued on, rudderless at sea like an abandoned ship. Michael Saunders pinch-hit for new catcher (ugh) Humberto Quintero in the 8th and slapped a single into centerfield that would prove to be futile. I'm still not sure why he didn't start today's game, but whatever. The past is past. Also, I was excited about making a point about how silly it seemed that Twins' manager Ron Gardenhire went back to the bullpen to get Raul Ibanez out here, and put in a righty instead of a lefty. But then said righty got Raul to ground out on a 2-0 pitch because of course he did, and the Mariners dugout remained as silent as it had been throughout the entire game, realizing they had yet again Blown It.
Nick Franklin saw the disappointment on the faces of his teammates, and after picking up the hat of the Mariners' dugout police officer to wear in a routine he intended to cheer up his teammates with, was slapped across the face by a furious Kendrys Morales, who shouted "Basta!" with hollow, vanquished eyes. Dustin Ackley ignored the entire exchange, sitting at the end of the bench and staring off into space like usual, utterly void of emotion, not even flinching while Brendan Ryan played drums on his batting helmet, which was of course on Ackley's head throughout the entire inning even though he wasn't going to be hitting.
The Mariners were going to lose. Interim manager Robby Thompson looked on all of this in horror, thinking of Eric Wedge and picturing his red face when he would scream at no one in particular, bursting blood vessels and tearing the seams in his Nike undershirt. The teal green of the dugout shone on Thompson's face like a dentist's light, and he thought about how badly he had always wanted to manage a team--any team--but especially this team that had believed in him enough to give him his first, real chance. Not like this, he thought. Not like this. He picked up his phone to call Eric Wedge and beg him to come back. Seven rings. Voicemail. Somewhere, Eric Wedge was looking at his phone, which read Missed Call: Robby T. He smiled, set his phone on the counter, and hit play on his John Wayne Netflix marathon.
So yes, what we had today was a crummy baseball game that takes its place in line right alongside 54 other crummy baseball games that the Mariners have played in 2013. If they split this series tomorrow, they are back on track to approach .500 and pretend this weekend never even happened in the first place. If not, well...who amongst us really thought this team was going to make the playoffs anyway? And who do we really have to blame about that?
Didn't we expect losing baseball filled with development time for the young guys? Weren't we, a few weeks ago, perfectly fine with losing more often than not and watching Nick Franklin learn his reps? Why does it seem so hard now that the Mariners are actually performing as expected? It seems like there is nothing a little winning streak won't do, and I would venture a guess that we haven't even seen the last of those. But just remember (and I'm telling this to myself as much as I am to you): some of us were perfectly happy with losing baseball games a month ago, as long as it meant Brad Miller and crew. This team has more than one year of baseball left in the tank. So should we.