One neat thing about watching the Mariners for your entire life is that it doesn’t take much to make a baseball game entertaining. It also doesn’t take much for a season to start to “mean something”. After all, when you’ve spent enough time squinting at terrible games in an attempt to salvage some positive aspect, you get used to it. The trouble is, it’s not clear whether that’s because you get better at seeing the positive, or if you’ve spent so much time squinting that your eyesight is gone.
For me, all it takes for the 2021 Mariners to be watchable is to be able to look at every player in the starting lineup and say “sure, I guess they would be rostered on other teams”. The Mariners have fallen short of that bar a disturbing number of times so far this season. When the team throws a Jack Mayfield or some such nonsense into the lineup, it’s hard to watch the game without thinking: OK, but what if you’d spent, like the veteran minimum to make this team watchable?
Tonight, even without Jarred Kelenic or Kyle Lewis in the lineup, the Mariners hit the bar. Barely.
The game started demoralizingly enough, with Marco Gonzales’ 2021 struggles cropping up in the first inning. Marco gave up three straight line drives, good for an earned run. One wonders if Marco is leaving balls in the zone and over-compensating a bit for an 8.5% walk rate that would be his worst since his rookie year.
The Mariners’ half of the inning didn’t exactly raise any spirits. Tonight was Twins starter Kenta Maeda’s first game back from an arm injury that kept him out for three weeks, and it would have been nice for the team to have had some success against him. For one, Maeda was noticeably rusty. For another, he was on a shorter leash than usual, and the Mariners had an opportunity to eat into the Twins’ bullpen in the first game of the series.
They did threaten to take advantage of Maeda’s rust. Three straight walks in the bottom of the first snapped a streak of twenty games in which Maeda hadn’t given up more than two. The M’s couldn’t take advantage. Dylan Moore popped out and Jake Bauers struck out to end the rally before it got a chance to begin.
The second inning didn’t go much better, with Maeda stricking out the bottom of the Mariner lineup in order. Marco’s struggles continued through the third, when two walks and a double mercifully did not amount to any scoring. It was after that that the feel of the game began to change.
It’s hard to put a finger on why exactly it felt different. Maybe it was that the Mariners were finally home after a 10-game road trip. It might have been the crispness of the air after a rainy weekend cleansed the skies, setting the stage for a beautiful sunset to provide a backdrop for the game. Or, it could have been the fact that, even if this Mariners team isn’t great, they were at least starting capable players. There weren’t any players whose mere presence was offensive. And because of that, it felt like the players weren’t playing with half a deck of cards. They were put in a winnable situation. They haven’t always been.
It began with a J.P. Crawford double, a screaming line drive into the right-center gap. It set the stage for Jake Fraley, who suddenly looks like the best player on this team, to drive Crawford in with a well-placed liner to left.
The Twins were able to answer right back in the fourth inning, but it didn’t change the vibe. Sure the Mariners were losing, but again, and I cannot stress how low the bar is, and how not okay that is, but there were capable players playing for the Mariners.
All it took was another turn around the top of the order. Jake Fraley drew yet another walk to bring up Ty France. France obliterated the ball, sending it whizzing past third base and into the left field corner and allowing Fraley to score. A Kyle Seager strikeout brought up Dylan Moore, who came about four feet away from a dinger. The ball bounced off of the center field fence, which was good enough for an RBI triple to tie the game.
As the cheering of the crowd swelled, 10,000 fans trying to make the noise of 40,000, it was hard not to feel jubilant. For a brief moment, the jubilation turned to a sort of defiance, aimed at the Mariners ownership. We’re here for the team, the cheering seemed to say. We like the team. It was just this afternoon that the Mariners had released this statement.
To give today’s fans the “event within an event” experience they’ve been looking for. Ergo, to draw fans to the ballpark using something other than the on-field product. After all, think of how much entertainment one could purchase with half a million dollars. Fielding a competitive team costs way more than that! No, let’s just stick with the sweet ‘Pen renovations.
So the Mariners had tied the game, and the fans were fully engaged. Booing borderline calls against the team, heckling repeated pickoff attempts, cheering for balls and groaning for strikes. JT Chargois relieved Marco Gonzales, and turned in two solid innings of high-leverage relief, dancing around a pair of seventh-inning singles to keep the game tied.
Finally, in the eighth inning, the team got over the hump. Jake Bauers looked at one ball from reliever Hansel Robles before unloading on a middle-middle changeup. The liner looked at first more like the stuff that long doubles are made of, but it kept cutting through the thick Seattle air. Finally, when the ball reached the wall, it still had just enough height to make it over, putting the Mariners a single run over the Twins.
Which put the game in the hands of Drew Steckenrider, who has been perfectly serviceable this year. I wish he wasn’t being given closing duties, but look, you can only ask for so much. Steck retired the Twins in order, sealing the win for the M’s.
When it was all said and done, eight out of nine Mariners tonight recorded a hit. It was a tight squeeze against a Twins team that isn’t exactly good, but not having near-automatic outs in the lineup goes a long way toward both winning and being watchable. I know that four of the Mariners that started for the Mariners are hitting below the Mendoza line, but I’m comfortable saying that all of them are underperforming. Besides, maybe they’ll improve even faster now that not everyone is using Spider Tack.
Some might say it’s a bit sad that this is all it takes to make the Mariners fun to watch. I think it’s freeing. Before winning a world series, a pennant, a division, hell, even a wild card spot, the Mariners have to just try. Not just the players. The organization has to just try. On the night that they tried to say that fans were looking for a way not to watch the team, the team forced the fans to watch. I know it might naive, but maybe John Stanton noticed that.
Besides, even if it is naive, isn’t that what watching this team is all about?