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33-44, Game Thought

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There's a common response to games like this, and games like last night's. "Just like they drew it up," people say. Maybe not so much with the four home runs, but certainly the part where the Mariners rode their two aces into The Stadium and beat the crap out of the Yankees. That was the design. That was how the Mariners - these Mariners - were supposed to get rolling and keep on making noise into October.

Of course, that isn't going to happen. All the hoping in the world isn't going to make it happen. The M's are 9-3 in their last 12 games, and they've still lost a game and a half in the standings. It's over. It's over, and that's why every conversation we have about Cliff Lee has to acknowledge the fact that any day could end up being his last in a Mariner uniform.

It's enough to make people upset. I mean, we all enjoy seeing the Mariners play better baseball and strut confidently around the Bronx, but it's hard to shake that what-if feeling. The M's are now 19-18 since the middle of May. Their entire season was slaughtered by a three-week slump, and when you see them playing like they're playing now, it frustrates you that they couldn't find this level earlier. It frustrates all of us. The ability was always there. It's just that the results didn't start showing up until it was too late, and that drives everybody bonkers. It's a missed opportunity.

And I think this is why people are so loath to see Lee get traded. No one's looking forward to it. No one's in a particular hurry to send Lee off through a hidden door in the bookcase that returns two or three mysterious young strangers. I imagine that, if you confronted most Mariners fans, they would understand that, rationally, it makes the most sense to trade him. Trading him is what's best for the organization, and at the end of the day what we care about is the organization's standing. And still, nobody really wants it.

And at least to me, it's because as long as Cliff Lee is here, I get to catch a glimpse of what a championship Mariners team could look like. Make no mistake: with these players, with these players on the roster right now, the Mariners could be champions. They have the talent to win a division, and they have the talent to roll through the playoffs. With Felix and Lee, the M's have marched into the Bronx and outscored the best team in baseball 14-4. There's no questioning this team's ceiling.

That's a rare glimpse. At no point did last year's Mariners really look like champions. They definitely didn't in 2008, nor did they in 2007, or 2006, or 2005, or 2004. We could argue about 2003 and 2002. But the point is that it's been a long time. The M's have been somewhere between bad and mediocre going on seven years, now. That's nothing to fans of the Pirates or Royals, but this isn't a pissing competition. Just because they've had it worse doesn't mean we haven't had it bad. Ichiro's the last remaining player from the most recent Mariners team that looked like a title contender. It has been a while.

I'm rather fond of this feeling. No matter their record, I still like seeing these M's go up against good opponents. They're generally competitive games, and they allow me to space out. Sometimes when I tune into a game, I try to forget the season's greater context. I try to forget it because by forgetting it, I can pretend that this team is going places.

Watching the Mariners right now makes me feel like I'm watching a successful version of the Mariners. A dangerous version of the Mariners. Maybe not so much when it's Doug Fister or RRS on the hill, but when they're rolling the front of the rotation, it's hard not to get swept away. A game like tonight's just leaves you smiling and thinking "man, this team is good." The Mariners are doing that.

And Cliff Lee is a big part of it. Maybe - probably - the biggest part. Felix is great and all, and tonight he was spectacular, but what really makes it work is that they go on back-to-back days. It brings this air of confidence and invincibility that you wouldn't get from pairing Felix with most anyone else. What we've seen from the Mariners throwing Lee and Felix at the Yankees on consecutive days is almost enough to make you start talking trash.

Trade Lee and that feeling is gone. It doesn't matter what comes back. With Lee, we glimpse the Mariners as champions. Without Lee, the blinds are pulled down, and we're left wondering what might lie behind. It makes this situation extraordinarily tough. I know what's best, and I know it's inevitable. But what I'm feeling now is something I haven't felt about the Mariners in a long, long time. I am in no hurry to stick that feeling in Lee's back pocket and send them both off to wherever they go.

With Cliff Lee, the Mariners stomped the Yankees. With Felix Hernandez, the Mariners stomped the Yankees. This team really could've been something. Savor what you can while you can.

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I watched this game from a distance in a bar, which is great for the live viewing experience, but lousy for purposes of coming up with game notes later on. All that needs to be said is that, with a Milton Bradley home run, a Russell Branyan home run, two Michael Saunders home runs, and a dominant King Felix complete-game win, this game was one Mark Teixeira double and one lost pop-up away from being about the most perfect game I could ever imagine. God bless this day.