The last few weeks have felt familiar. There are few endeavors in life that allow for such a smooth and seamless transition between moods as baseball. Specifically, Mariners baseball. Nothing feels quite so natural as going from having legitimately unbridled optimism about the Mariners’ playoff chances to utter despondency. In less than a month, the team’s chances (per Fangraphs) have gone from over 30% to about 5%. The time of transition has varied from year to year. Some years, it happens before the All-Star Break. Some years, it happens in late July or early August. It’s usually over a few weeks.
There are a few things that set this year apart. For one, it seems like the entire transition took place in just one night - the night that James Paxton got hurt (again). I don’t know if I’ve seen a baseball team rely so heavily upon one pitcher the way the 2017 Mariners were relying on Pax at the time of his injury. Another weird thing about this year is, hey, real offense.
The best and worst bizarre thing about this stupid year is the ubiquity of mediocrity in the American League. There are still six not-very-good teams that are within 4.5 games of the second Wild Card spot. It’s bad because it perhaps speaks to a lower quality of play throughout the AL. It’s good, of course, because it means that despite everything, the Mariners are still in it. Somehow.
Not a lot of fans are still invested, but even the ones that are would have to admit that losing this series against the Angels would basically eliminate the team from the playoffs. So when Justin Upton (whyyy do they have him?) singled in the top of the 1st to score Brandon Phillips (UGH) and Mike Trout (UGH), the crowd grew uneasy. The last vestiges of the Mariners’ 2017 season could be felt drying up.
That is, until the proverbial goat of the second half (not to be confused with GOAT), Ben Gamel, decided to do this in the bottom of the 2nd.
Big Ben Gamel coming through in the clutch. pic.twitter.com/lwgGFh7QAs— Mariners (@Mariners) September 9, 2017
A Mitch Haniger single in the next inning made it 4-2. With staff-ace-by-default Mike Leake on the hill, there was suddenly a clear path to victory. Well, maybe more of a muddy path. But a path, all the same.
After a couple of woeful attempts at swings by both teams over the next couple innings, the Angels got what may have been their best chance of the game. Brandon Phillips was leading off. Phillips is not especially intimidating on his own, but then you remember he’s followed by Justin Upton... and Mike Trout... and Albert Pujols, and Kohhlee Kahlhoone. There was a lot of pressure to get Phillips out.
Maybe because of that pressure, Mike Leake started the at-bat by throwing three straight balls to Phillips. He fought back to make it a 3-2 count, but then went ahead and threw a 91 MPH sinker right over the heart of the plate. Phillips turned on it and sent it toward the left field wall. It went up, it when back, and Ben Gamel chased it.
Gamel's getting it done tonight.— Mariners (@Mariners) September 9, 2017
️ https://t.co/FednrOk8e0 pic.twitter.com/9R1OafzxDL
Sheesh. For a guy that’s just been plain atrocious over the last month or two, Gamel did a whole lot of the heavy lifting tonight. The Angels would, of course, score a run this inning on a Pujols single, but this Gamel catch certainly kept the Mariners in front.
The game then came down to what so many Mariner games this season have come down to. The bullpen, given a one-run lead, was tasked with getting through three innings unscathed. They’ve been quite capable, though the decision to bring in Ryan Garton, even for just one batter, was questionable. Garton did the job, as did James Pazos and Emilio Pagan.
Nick Vincent? Pretty much a guaranteed inning these days.
Edwin Diaz? Well, usually. Today was a good Edwin Diaz day, which means he can do this.
That 91 MPH slider came on the heels of four straight 100 MPH fastballs. Not much you can do there, if you’re Luis Valbuena.
So the Mariners won the first game of this three-game series against the Angels. Maybe they can win another, with second-competent-pitcher Andrew Albers pitching. Maybe they can sneak the third, with not-that-bad Erasmo Ramirez on the hill.
Next week, maybe Paxton and Felix come back. Maybe they play all the way up to their potential. Maybe the rest of the team does, too.
Maybe, maybe, maybe. Probably not. But what this game gave us, was maybe. Instead of “definitely not.” And for tonight, I guess that’ll have to be enough.