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Mariners being fun again is an unfamiliar challenge

For many years, watching games in August and September has always been about the future, and never the present. It's an unfamiliar challenge to deal with hope turning into reality, but this is as fun as baseball has been in over a decade.

Leon Halip

On August 3rd, the Mariners found themselves starting August much like they had carried through July. Hisashi Iwakuma was brilliant, allowing just a single run while coming up just short of a complete game. The Mariners offense, mired in a familiar slump, scored zero runs on four hits, losing to the Orioles 1-0. It was their 8th loss in a row in which they scored a maximum of two runs. At three games over .500, the Mariners were still in the wild card conversation, but optimism was starting to fade. This was, of course, when the Mariners would become the Mariners again -- only a slight tease before the inevitable crash back to familiarity.

It wasn't rational. Rational thoughts are the ones that I, and others, choose to write on this website when we have time to collect our thoughts and analyze the situation properly. Rationality mixed with optimism triumphs only when you determine that it's strong enough to defeat the irrational pessimism that this franchise has branded into the sides of countless brains over the last decade. On August 3rd, with playoff odds dwindling into the 20-30% range, rational thoughts began to align with pessimism. Maybe those thoughts didn't translate to blog posts, but they were there.

Many of us, including myself, have forgotten how to deal with success. I've written about hope time and time again, and why that's such a driving factor in rooting for the M's in lost seasons, in meaningless games where you wish for good performances to indicate future drivers of success. I've become conditioned to hope for a feeling that I don't know how to process.

On August 3rd, the Mariners sat 10.5 games out of first place in the AL West. Even though the Mariners then won four straight games to pull within a half game of Kansas City for the second wild card spot, the M's somehow lost a half game in the AL West. The thought of making a 1995-style miracle comeback, the most irrational hope of all, wasn't even a thought. It was a joke.

But the run continued. The Mariners went 6-2 in their next 8 games, scoring runs at will while limiting them like always. 11 games over .500, yet somehow only holding a half game lead in the wild card race, thanks to Kansas City holding the same torrid pace that the Mariners have.

Quietly, the A's started to lose. While I've spent my evenings focused on everything Kansas City, Detroit, and Toronto have been doing, the A's have lost seven of their last 8. Their lead in the AL West is gone, now tied with the Angels. The Mariners are just five and a half games back.

On August 3rd, the Kansas City Royals were five games out of first place in the AL Central. Despite winning four of their last five, they sat behind the Detroit Tigers, who just added David Price at the trade deadline. The fight for the wild card was on, and division hopes were surely dashed. With no playoff appearances in nearly 30 years, Royals fans also fell back into that familiar feeling. Hope for a chance, not for a title. They'd seen this before, coming up short in 2013. They weren't going to catch the Tigers, not now. It was a battle for a one game playoff with another franchise who didn't know how to be there.

The Mariners started winning, and so did the Royals. The Tigers lost, the A's lost. This isn't the narrative. These aren't the teams who should be surging in the final months.

The Royals took a five game AL Central lead from the Tigers in eight days, and have held it for seven.

The Mariners gained five and a half games on the A's in seven days. Now, with 39 games remaining, the Mariners have a similar gap to close than the Royals just did on Detroit in just over a week.

The AL Wild Card lead remains small while the AL West division lead is shrinking. There's no doubt that the Angels and A's are loaded with better talent than the Mariners from top to bottom, but they aren't playing any better than the M's right now. With a cupcake schedule remaining in August against the Phillies, Red Sox, Rangers, and Nationals, the Mariners have a chance to close even more ground in the AL West while extending their lead in the Wild Card. Then comes September, the month of death -- a chance, albeit minuscule, to snatch a division title against all odds.

Six games against Oakland. Seven games against LAA. It's a brutal month, but one in which the team has the opportunity to do something crazy.

The Mariners probably won't stay hot like this forever, or even much longer. The A's can't keep losing like this, and the Angels will cool off a little themselves. Baseball comes in waves, rising and falling, sometimes crashing on top of those who ride them. For years, every time the Mariners have paddled out into open sea, they've been crushed by a wave that represents the inability to ever stand up on the board and ride with the big boys.

For once, the Mariners are riding, refusing to get knocked off. A September storm is coming, but if they fight through, there's glory on the other side. Calm waters, warm sunshine that hasn't been felt for 13 years. A place that only exists in hazy memories. Nostalgia, pictures with frayed edges and timestamps at the bottom that remind that it was possible to be be a winner. A lifetime ago. Frosted tips, Vanilla Coke, a playoff hunt in Seattle.

It's time to face our hope and prepare for the oasis beyond the waves. The Mariners have a 52% chance of reaching the playoffs, via Fangraphs. Baseball Prospectus is better, at 54%. ESPN, relying heavily on record and run differential, is at 72%. No matter where you look, the Mariners have better than a coin flip chance at making the playoffs. This is real.

The Mariners are almost certainly not going overtake two teams and steal away the division. This isn't 1995, where one team can streak and another can collapse, leading to the most improbable flip. There's two teams here, two very good teams who would both have to tank while the Mariners soar.

Still, if ever there was a time to believe in something that has a ~2% chance of happening, why not now? If you feel uncomfortable with the Mariners currently holding a playoff spot, funnel that hope into something more irrationally desperate, making a late push to snatch the division lead. Get comfortable with being defeatist again. Just know that at some point, you'll have to come back to the reality that myself and others are surely struggling with. The Seattle Mariners are better than we're prepared for them to be.