I remember there was a line in a Ken Rosenthal season preview late in March that caught my eye. It was mentioned in passing and wasn't a main thesis, but I've tracked it down for your benefit. Said Rosenthal in Spring Training's final week:
The truth is, only a handful of clubs appear unable to compete - probably the Pirates, Astros, Diamondbacks in the NL, the Royals, Indians and Mariners in the AL.
I don't bring this up to pick on Rosenthal. His is just the line I chose to highlight. Truth be told, this was a common theme in the vast sea of season previews that threatened to drown us all on the eve of the year. According to so many of the previews I read and so many more that I skimmed, the Phillies were great, the Red Sox were great, and the Mariners didn't have a chance.
That wasn't a big deal. These were, after all, just season previews. Having written a lot of them in my day, I realize that they're not scientific and are based almost entirely around writer guesses and intuition, and the Mariners were fresh off a 101-loss disaster for the ages. For the average baseball guy, there wasn't much reason to believe that the M's could make noise.
But we'd been thinking otherwise. None of us deluded ourselves into thinking the M's were favorites, but we saw the upside in the roster. We saw the potential for a strong rotation with Felix, Bedard and Pineda. We saw the potential for a good bullpen with the hard-throwing talent in the back. We saw the potential for a decent offense given just a few steps forward from the youth, and we saw the potential for effective leadership in Eric Wedge.
We saw the hope. Long-shot hope, but hope nonetheless. And so to see the M's being completely written off by others caused us to wonder. We'd been made to look foolish by our team before. Were the others missing some crucial details, or had we simply been bitten by the Spring Training bug that shits sunshine and Skittles? After all, for even the worst team in baseball, there exists some combination of events that would lead them into the playoffs. We were left to wonder whether our hope was realistic, or the stuff of enthusiastic daydreams.
Fortunately, once the deluge of season previews gushes forth in full force, it's only a matter of time before the actual season begins. And the start of the season gave the Mariners an opportunity to prove themselves and validate our confidence that they could, at the very least, be kind of all right.
Of course, we all remember how it started. When you get outscored 23-4 in the first series of the year, it's kind of hard to keep your chin up, even if it is only three games in the books. I still remember how disheartening it was to watch Felix struggle so bad in that first go and throw his glove at the dugout bench. When you hand the ball to Felix Hernandez and have to yank him four innings later, it sets the wrong tone, and that whole series felt like it was pulled straight from 2010's pages. The Mariners looked like they'd need every break they could get coming into the year to contend. To fall three games behind two division rivals after just three days, having thrice been completely embarrassed - it was miserable, and at the same time somewhat pleasant in its familiarity. Sure, we could do this again. Why not? We've done it before.
Thankfully it all improved from there. It would be impossible for it not to. The stink of the first series lingered for less than a week before Justin Smoak delivered what I still think might have been the best moment of the year. The home opener was an emotional night for everybody and the last thing you want to do after a touching pregame ceremony is to roll over, so to see Smoak blast that walk-off home run off Chris Perez - it's one of those things I have to type out, delete, and type out again because I still can't believe that it happened. To erase eight innings of lifeless baseball with one swing of the bat is a Herculean task, and that was the moment that launched this season. We'd already conceded defeat by the time Smoak's bat met that slider, and his was a feat of heroics that made us think, maybe.
For some time after that, the Mariners were what the hopeful among us thought they could be. Even with Pineda's early inconsistency and Fister's DL scare, the run prevention managed. Even with Ichiro's slow start and Olivo's clinical addiction to trying to hit the baseball literally through the center of the fence, they pushed some runs across the plate, buoyed by Figgins' resurgence. The key when you're a team like the Mariners were is to hang around and make the season shorter, and the M's were able to do just that. With no one having sprinted out of the gate, the end of April found the M's just a game out of the lead.
And that was where they remained after May. At 30-26, the M's were practically halfway to their previous season's win total a third of the way into the year. I remember there was some thought that the May schedule might expose the Mariners as frauds. That having to face some tough opponents would knock them down from playing over their heads. But looking back now, the M's breezed right through that 13-game stretch with relative ease, and any thought that that 12-inning loss in New York might deflate them was erased with a Vargas shutout the next day. Two months in, and the M's had shown themselves to be effective and resilient.
Ask me what I remember from the middle two months, and I'll be honest with you - the middle stretch is a blur. I know that the Mariners entered in contention, and I know that the Mariners emerged in contention, but everything that happened between either artificial endpoint is a confusing jumbled mess. I guess this is just how it is when you spend six months in a constant dogfight. You remember how it starts, and you remember how it ends, but everything in the middle is a whirlwind of activity.
I do remember Dustin Ackley coming up. Obviously, I remember Dustin Ackley coming up and immediately having to face the Phillies rotation in his first three Major League games. I remember Wilson going on the DL. I remember Bradley going on the DL. I remember the consecutive blown saves, and I remember the consecutive walk-offs. I remember Felix striking out Albert Pujols on three pitches in the All-Star Game. I remember a few things, but I don't remember many things, nor can I recall with great accuracy the timing.
But the schedule shows that the Mariners wrapped up action on July 31st just two games back in the West, and with a brand new reliever in Sean Marshall. To everyone's great surprise, the Seattle Mariners were still in the thick of things, and with four months of the season behind them, they'd done all they could to show they weren't a fluke. They were simply winning games the way they thought they'd win games the year before. Turns out it wasn't so much the plan as it was the execution.
It all really comes back into focus that first week in August, when the M's had three straight series against their three division rivals. At that point the West was a big jumbled mess with four games separating the best from the worst, and the series all assumed an extraordinary leverage. There was critical ground to be gained, and critical ground to be lost.
When the M's started out with a pair of losses to Oakland, it stung us in a delicate area. We wondered if the balloon had been popped just as everybody was buying in. But then the team rallied for those six straight wins, including that sweep of the Angels in Anaheim that pushed them deeper into the cellar, and everything was back on the upswing. The starters looked steady. The bullpen looked steady. The lineup was getting contributions from just about everyone. What wasn't to like? Why couldn't they do it?
And that was around when the Bedard whispers started. Oh, they started quietly, like they always do. Minor discomfort. Scratched bullpen. But then he missed a start. Then he went on the DL. Shoulder inflammation. Of course the team thought it was nothing. The team always thinks it's nothing, and it always ends up being something. When Bedard was placed on the 15-day, I don't know that there was a Mariners fan on the planet who thought we'd see the pitcher again. And without Bedard's arm, the team was substantially weakened.
But Luke French managed. Twice, Luke French managed. Teams that scrape by like the Mariners always have as many role players to thank as regular studs, and Luke French did us a solid by winning both of his starts. And then, as if by some miracle, Bedard came back. There was no tear to be found. There was no surgery to be had. What there was was minor inflammation that turned out to be just minor inflammation, and Bedard was fine. Fine, just in time for a start against the Angels.
I remember that series as being the series that the M's knocked them out. Whatever hope the Angels clung to was dashed in convincing fashion in a dominant four-game Safeco sweep that felt a bit like revenge for Lollablueza. The three grand slams in the Ervin Santana game from Guti, Ackley and Cust made for delightful instant trivia. With the Angels out, the M's just had to focus on their four remaining series against the A's and the Rangers. Get the job done there and the M's could pull off the unthinkable.
I guess I probably don't need to recap the month that sits freshest in our minds. After all, the events of this past month have probably been looping through each of our heads on a near-constant basis. Maybe not all of them, but the big ones. Tying for first place on that Friday. Grabbing sole possession the next night. Walking off over the Yankees. Blanking the Rangers last Sunday. And, of course, clinching. Clinching on the penultimate day of the season in a strangely comfortable fashion. You'd think that a team that fought as long and as hard as the Mariners did would clinch with a nail-biting save or an extra-innings walk-off, so it was strange watching Aardsma get the ball with a six-run lead. I don't mean to suggest that the win felt anything less than absolutely, staggeringly wonderful, but it was weird sustaining a standing ovation for the final half-inning when the game had been decided an hour before.
The last game of the year yesterday was a very different kind of formality than it's been in the recent past. This time, the last game of the year wasn't the last game of the year. There are more games. Important games. The most important games the M's will have played in a decade. I can't tell you how unprepared I am in every way for postseason baseball, and I'm sure that you feel the same. It's been so long that this is basically new. For some, it is new. I don't know if the M's can handle the Red Sox, and I don't know if I can handle finding out if the M's can handle the Red Sox. I don't know if I can handle a loss, and I really don't know if I can handle a win.
But that's nervousness, and I don't want to deal with nervousness today. I'll deal with nervousness tomorrow. Today, it's all about celebrating and appreciating the team we've been able to watch for six months. It's about appreciating every single player, and the contributions each has made along the way to put the team in this position. It goes beyond the obvious. Of course Felix was a big help with his Cy Young-caliber season. Of course Cust helped out with his 24 home runs. Of course Ichiro was the star of the lineup. But pretty much everybody did something. Lueke did a great job for a kid given his responsibility. It seemed like Figgins was on base at least once or twice a game. French had a few big emergency wins. Even Kennedy made that one diving grab to save a game before he went away. Given the narrow margin by which the Mariners won the West, it's honestly hard to say whether they would've done this with most any other combination of players.
Looking back, I understand where all those writers were coming from when they gave the M's a nothing chance. I understand why they felt how they felt. The M's were terrible in 2010. They didn't do much in the offseason to improve. So why should they be expected to do anything? Rebuilding takes time. It doesn't happen overnight.
But what those writers lacked was our insight into the talent level of the team. This is unquestionably something that has burned us before. Fans have been proven to often think a little too highly of the players they watch every day. But another consequence of being so devoted to a particular team is that you come to know more about that team than anyone else, and with this knowledge comes greater insight. If you're careful with that insight, you can arrive at more informed conclusions than those who don't have it, and in the end the Mariners proved that our preseason fantasies contained more than a few shreds of reality.
Flash back to that game against the Rangers in the early part of August. Remember how Ichiro and Figgins each scored two runs. Remember how Smoak went deep, and how Saunders hit the two-run double. Remember how Pineda used changeups to strike out Josh Hamilton three times. And remember how Lueke, League and Aardsma were able to throw nearly three perfect innings of relief. Before the year, that wasn't a game that a lot of people thought could take place. We were the ones who believed that it could. Fresh off as humbling a season as any that I can remember, it feels good to have the option to boast.
These six months have just been all kinds of fun.
Now let's kick Boston's ass.