Baseball is a game of inches, they say. Or a game of Inges, if you're talking about the Tigers, A's, or Pirates between 2011-2013 with the wit of your pun-happy uncle that likes to get silly after two cans of Bud Lite.
But besides having a Brandon Inge on their roster, each of those above teams shared the wonderful occurrence of having an unpredictably successful season, surprising critics and putting their cities in the mix for years of postseason relevancy that still peppers the landscape of today's Major League Baseball environment. Each of those seasons were also little more than a series of unlikely events, all adding up to just enough wins to sneak into contention when each could have very well fallen short on the drop of a hat. A game of inches, a game of Inges--however it happened, it did.
The 2014 Seattle Mariners may have missed the playoffs by one game, but in the process they also surprised both critics and analysts, die-hard fans and those who had written them off for better feelings in the building next door. If they can sustain that level of success, it seems fair to say that the unpredictable 2014 season will be the benchmark from which we conceive of an entire era of Seattle Mariners baseball, the flood myth for the best moments in the careers of Felix Hernandez, Kyle Seager, and maybe, just maybe, even Robinson Cano. But it all could have gone so differently, turning on the drop of a hat and damning the next five years back into the dustbin of irrelevancy.
So let's look back at some of the defining moments of the 2014 season, starting our series today with, obviously, opening night.
Opening Night- Felix Hernandez sneaks past the Angels (March 31)
It was strange to see the Mariners on television without the dulcet tones of Dave Sims and Mike Blowers calling each pitch, but then again, it was an event that had the attention of the entire sports world by the carrot. And unfortunately, it didn't have much to do with the city of Seattle, either. Robinson Cano was the story, and while the ESPN crew was busy talking about roster additions and payroll flexibility and Jack Zduriencik, the Mariners managed to sneak out a surprise win against a much superior Angels club that would go on to have the best record in the entire game.
So of course it seems perfectly fitting looking back that it all started on national television. The hapless Mariners, sending out their new crew of baseball misfits behind that one pitcher that should be in New York and the one player that shouldn't have left New York, begging for attention from a league that had laughed them into the gutter since 2003 or so. And it didn't get off to the best start, either. It was Felix' sixth pitch of the game, and he had already put Kole Calhoun on first base with a single. And then, Mike Trout.
The sound of the ball leaving the bat would have done damage to your speakers had the volume been loud enough. The roar of the crowd was only matched by what felt like the arrival of the 2014 Angels, strolling their way into first place and writing their name on the corner with a silver sharpie.
Well the Angels arrived alright, but the Mariners weren't exactly too far behind. The M's ended up scoring ten runs that night, and Justin Smoak plated three runs with a dinger in what would be the swan song of his unfortunate career as the unrealized first baseman of the Mariners' future. Oh, and Felix had a little revenge of his own too:
Now I don't intend for this series to be a bunch of re-hashed off-season recaps, although I will admit I miss the hell out of baseball and could pretend if it made things any better. And what I'm not trying to do is find that one hit, that one win that could have changed the course of the season to put the Mariners into their first postseason in over a decade, because that would be both cruel and also pointless.
No, instead I want to find the peaks and valleys of the season that ensured that every following game was still played with the intensity and hope of doing something meaningful with the season. The moments that add up not to 87 wins, but instead to that chills-inducing ovation to Felix on the last day of the season that meant they were in it until the end. The chapter titles that would line the table of contents. The images that your memory will conjure up when they talk about all this in ten years.
I know that you can't quantify those moments, and that the entire point of baseball is that you have thousands of chances to do just enough, and that one bad day can be followed by a good one and vice versa. Highlighting singularities might seem counter-intuitive to the whole process of averaging, but it would also be silly to deny that this game has an emotional and mental toll on both players and fans alike--that winning teams can't be derailed by what may seem like the most minor of events. So I'm going to try and close each of these by trying to qualify why each moment stands out as one of the season's most definitive, both for team and player alike.
As dumb as it sounds, I think it was incredibly important that the Mariners did what they did on ESPN's national platform. I mean, I'm sure that clobbering Mike Trout and the Angels 10-3 also helped energize the clubhouse after the game, too. No one likes losing. But just look at this lineup:
This was on national television. Besides Cano and Felix, the Mariners were filled with young guys fresh off a prove-it-or-lose-it spring training where no job was safe, with a new manager and a new philosophy that they probably didn't even understand yet. And next door there was Mike Scioscia and Albert Pujols and that obnoxious guy who always did shit for the Cardinals in October and the real MVP. But instead of rolling over, the M's took advantage of a tiring Jered Weaver and did their thing in front of a national audience that didn't even have a clue that they were going to still be talking about this team in six months. I'll fall short of calling it poetic justice, but you have to wonder.
Felix was no stranger to the bright lights, or even getting the win on opening day (his club-record seventh start in the role). But opening night also set a trend for what would be one of the strangest Aprils in recent memory: starting centerfielder Abraham Almonte led off the game with a single, flashing the speed that earned him the starting job before getting thrown out trying to steal second, suggesting the erratic decision-making that would take it from him a short time later.
Lloyd's first man out of the bullpen was Yoervis Medina, and we all know how that ended up by September. Dustin Ackley started off slow and looked terrified in the outfield, but heated up in the seventh and hit a triple in the ninth. His season in a microcosm. Brad Miller looked simultaneously confused and locked in, prepping for another positional quandary that would give him what could very well end up being the worst month of his entire career. You can read nearly the entire year into this one game, and although the eventual win didn't mirror a trip to the playoffs, you have to wonder how different April would have been if the first week went any other way, especially without a Sean Barber-shaped scapegoat for the single loss in that timeframe. And don't forget it was these same Angels the Mariners faced on the final day of the season.
But ultimately there was a strange, surreal tone set on national television Opening Night that would follow the Mariners through to September. It was just one game, so the narrative had yet to be broken, and "questions" surrounding the Robinson Cano addition were still valid questions. And yet, for one evening, the hope that was felt during spring training wasn't betrayed. And it happened right in front of a disbelieving baseball public that would be forced to admit that the Mariners just may have something a few short months later.
You may have been laughed off for thinking it meant anything that night, and yet, you would have been right in the end.