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39-66, A Thought

Losing, slumping teams are often accused of doing one of two things:

1) Rolling over

2) Pressing

If you think about it, these are complete opposites. A hypothetical team that rolls over has stopped caring. It's given up, and it's going through the motions. A hypothetical team that's pressing, meanwhile, cares too much. It's trying too hard to make something happen. So losing, slumping teams are often accused of either doing one thing, or doing the complete opposite thing.

I've already talked about why I don't think the Mariners are mailing it in. Covered that a week and a half ago. Turns out we've been a losing, slumping team for a while. Today, I want to talk a little bit about pressing, and why I think that's a pretty good partial explanation for what's going on.

It didn't really occur to me until just a little while ago, when I was playing chess on the computer. I should warn you right now that what follows may be a bit of a reach, as nothing in my life is the least bit comparable to professional baseball. But anyway. I'm not very good at chess. I used to be, about 15 years ago, but then I stopped playing for more than a decade and the skill went away. Or maybe the opponents got better. Recently, I re-discovered it while exploring the menu on my laptop, so I opened it up and started playing. And kept playing. I play a lot of chess.

And I'm terrible. I suck at chess. I don't have many strategies or signature moves or plans more than like one or two moves ahead of the present. I like playing, and I like winning, and I want to get better, but right now I'm bad and continue to lose the majority of the time that I play. But all that losing just makes me want to play more. It makes me want to win more. It makes me want to keep playing until I win more often. It's frustrating, and the only way to make something less frustrating is to conquer it.

It isn't just chess, either. It applies to most of the things I'm not good at. Other games. Social situations. Activities. When I'm not good at something, I want very badly to get better. But the problem lies in this awareness. Frustration and awareness lead to anxiety and desperation. And anxiety and desperation lead to setbacks and crucial mistakes.

This is what pressing is. To use the chess example again, if I'm in a rut, I become more determined to win, but also more likely not to think a move through all the way, because the frustration is blinding. The desperation leads to sloppiness, which leads to further losing, which leads to further desperation, which leads to further sloppiness, which leads to further losing, which leads to further desperation, and so on.

It snowballs. And the only real relief is a win, or a series of wins, to take some of the pressure off.

To take this back to the Mariners, since God knows I've talked enough about chess, I'm certain the losing gets them down. I'm certain the losing makes them upset. I don't think they come to the ballpark looking to roll over because they're upset, though. I think, because they're upset, they come to the ballpark looking to win more. I think they want to win worse. By this point, the losing has gotten so bad that pretty much everyone has to be frustrated, and out of that frustration, everyone just wants so badly to turn things around.

But they're aware of that frustration. They're aware of the slump. And that makes them more anxious, desperate, and error-prone.

I realize that this is in no way a novel thought. The ideas of "pressing" and "trying too hard" are beyond being trite. But I think a lot of people tend to throw those things out there as explanations without really thinking about what they mean. I think the Mariners probably are trying too hard right now. I think they probably are trying to make too many things happen. I think they're probably so mad about all the losing that they really do go out there and try to do too much.

Sports should come naturally. A player should be comfortable, and shouldn't really have to consciously think too hard about what to do in any given situation. Sometimes pitchers get accused of thinking too much on the mound, and it sounds like a silly old boys' sort of accusation, but it makes sense. A pitcher should have confidence in his stuff and throw it without trying to think about every little thing. That's how you nibble, and nibbling is how you end up out of a game.

I could be wrong. I could be completely, totally, utterly, humiliatingly wrong. These Mariners, though, are caught in a thoroughly demoralizing slump. They all know it. They're all upset by it. They all want to turn it around. And I think that absolute determination to start winning again may be in part - in part - responsible for why the slump has only gotten worse, and why we've only started to see more and more seemingly careless mistakes. They aren't careless mistakes. They're borne of caring too much. They're borne of caring so much that the players don't want to screw up, and when the players are conscious of the fact that they don't want to screw up, they lose their focus and get stuck.

The math tells us that team hot streaks and cold streaks tend to be random occurrences more than anything else, random sequences of events that happen sometimes with probabilities and everything. What I think we've seen on enough occasions with the Mariners, though, is that one game isn't completely independent of the next, and that sometimes, a slump can just build and build. It's silly to think that the losing doesn't have some effect on the players' mentalities, and it's silly to think that said mentalities don't in some way effect the play on the field. And it isn't hard to imagine how that effect could be negative.

The only way out of something like this, naturally, is by winning. The Mariners have to find some way to win, and win often enough that they can put the entire month of July behind them. At this rate, that may require some luck, but luck would do. It might also require playing more newer guys, guys who aren't feeling as negative as everyone else. I'm not really sure how to make this team win. I just know that it has to find a way, and find a way soon, before this slump becomes the slump of a lifetime.