It’s been 20 years since the Seattle Mariners unleashed a closing kick for the ages. And if you’re old enough to remember that stirring run, you know what’s possible.
The Mariners were 121/2 games behind the then-California Angels in the American League West Division as late as Aug. 20 before charging down the stretch and reaching the postseason for the first time in franchise history.
By comparison, their current situation isn’t nearly as bleak.
The Mariners, at 41-48, trail the first-place Los Angeles Angels by 71/2 games in the AL West race and are seven games behind division-rival Houston in the chase for the AL’s final wild-card berth.
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“The only thing you can do is to go out there and keep fighting,” said second baseman Robinson Cano, whose personal struggles serve as a club-wide microcosm. “Lately, we’ve been playing better.”
Treading water might be a better characterization. The Mariners are 16-16 since a disastrous 2-9 homestand from May 28 to June 7.
“We haven’t really gotten on a streak,” third baseman Kyle Seager conceded. “We’ll win a game, lose a game. It’s hard to make up ground that way.”
A feeling that such a surge is coming still permeates the organization.
“We haven’t had one hot streak yet,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “Every team in baseball has at least one. History tells you that. I’m looking forward to the second half of the season to see what happens.”
Here are five questions to ponder as the Mariners resume play Friday with the first of three weekend games against the Yankees in New York:
1. WILL THEY HIT?
Think about this for a moment: The Mariners, a year ago, had one of the American League’s worst attacks but addressed that shortcoming in the offseason by signing Nelson Cruz, who led the majors in homers in 2014.
And Cruz has produced. He started Tuesday as the AL’s designated hitter in the All-Star Game, is batting .308 and on pace to finish with 38 homers and 96 RBIs.
The Mariners also added Seth Smith, who ranks among the AL leaders in doubles while compiling a 132 OPS-plus (100 is average), and Mark Trumbo, who averaged 32 homers in each of his past three full seasons.
And somehow — somehow! — the Mariners are producing less than a year ago. Much of the problem stems from a sharp decline by Cano, although he is batting .293 over the past month.
Bottom line: Club officials believe the law of averages augurs a dramatic uptick from their lineup over the final 73 games. If they’re wrong, the Mariners will be battling to avoid last place.
2. WILL THE BULLPEN FIND EQUILIBRIUM?
The bullpen’s failings, beyond those by former All-Star closer Fernando Rodney, often get overlooked in the shadow cast by the Mariners’ struggle to score runs.
Let’s face it: Some regression to the norm appeared likely after the unit put together a 2.59 ERA last season that topped the majors by a wide margin. (San Diego was second at 2.73.)
Not this much, though. The Mariners exit the break with a 3.81 bullpen ERA that ranks 22nd among the 30 clubs. It isn’t just Rodney, either.
Yoervis Medina and Dominic Leone were demoted to the minors before getting traded — and they remain in the minors with their new clubs. Tom Wilhelmsen and Danny Farquhar also were dispatched to Triple-A Tacoma.
There have been pluses. Rookie Carson Smith looks a long-term fit at closer. Mark Lowe has resurrected his career, and lefties Charlie Furbush and Joe Beimel have pitched well.
Bottom line: A year ago, a lockdown bullpen covered for an inability to score runs. That’s not happening this season on a regular basis. Something has to change, either better bullpen work or more runs. Preferably both.
3. WILL THEY MAKE A DEAL?
It’s hard to see the Mariners making a major acquisition prior to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. Clubs that see themselves in the hunt — and the Mariners still do — rarely surrender pieces off their 25-man roster.
Further, the Mariners don’t have an obvious upper-level prospect who could generate a major return — i.e., a year ago they sent Nick Franklin to Tampa Bay in a three-way deal that brought Austin Jackson from Detroit.
One possibility: The Mariners possess a rotation surplus and could trade either Hisashi Iwakuma or J.A. Happ, who are pending free agents, to bolster another area — particularly if the return nets a pending free agent.
Other than that, the roster is unlikely to undergo anything more than minor tweaks. They could perhaps add a reliever or a backup catcher.
Now, if the Mariners fall out of contention over the next few weeks, say 10-12 games back or more, they could look to offload Iwakuma, Happ or Jackson, who is also a pending free agent, for whatever they can get.
Bottom line: The Mariners, if they are going to climb back into the hunt, will likely have to do so with the personnel on hand.
4. IS THERE HELP IN THE MINORS?
Two possibilities stand out: Lefty Roenis Elias is poised for another recall if circumstances create an opening in the rotation, and shortstop Ketel Marte could get a look.
Marte loomed as a likely promotion candidate in late May before suffering a broken thumb that sidelined him for nearly six weeks. He played this week in the All-Star Futures Game and the Triple-A All-Star Game.
Marte is an alternative to Chris Taylor as either a utilityman or shortstop, depending on how the Mariners choose to use Brad Miller.
Bottom line: It’s pretty thin soup after Elias and Marte, although the Mariners could take a look at catcher Steve Baron, a defensive specialist, if the trade front fails to produce an alternative to backup Jesus Sucre.
5. WHAT’S THE MATH?
The Mariners are 71/2 games behind first-place Los Angeles in the AL West and seven games behind Houston for the final wild-card berth.
With 73 games remaining, that means they must roughly make up one game over every 10 to reach postseason for the first time since 2001.
That’s a tall order but not impossible — if club officials are correct in believing their roster is poised for a turnaround after an underperforming first half.
Bottom line: The skilled stat-crunchers at www.fangraphs.com contend the Mariners have a 17.7 percent chance of reaching the postseason.
Reliever Wilhelmsen is expected to be recalled from Triple-A Tacoma prior to Friday’s series opener against the Yankees in New York.
The Mariners have a bullpen opening after optioning right-hander Farquhar to Tacoma after Sunday’s 10-3 loss to the Angels.
Wilhelmsen has four scoreless one-inning appearances since his July 4 demotion. He had a 1.96 ERA this season through 15 big-league games before allowing nine runs in 62/3 innings over seven games.
It was 36 years ago Friday — July 17, 1979 — that the Kingdome served as the site for the 50th All-Star Game.
A Seattle-record crowd of 58,905 greeted Mariners representative Bruce Bochte with a standing ovation, and he responded with a pinch-hit RBI single in the sixth inning.
Bochte’s hit gave the American League a 6-5 lead, but the National League rallied for a 7-6 victory.
The Mariners and Yankees open a three-game series at 4:05 p.m. (PDT) Friday at Yankee Stadium in New York.
Left-hander Mike Montgomery (4-3, 2.29 ERA) will face New York right-hander Masahiro Tanaka (5-3, 3.63).
FRIDAY: Seattle (Mike Montgomery: 4-3, 2.29 ERA) at New York Yankees (Masahiro Tanaka: 5-3, 3.63 ERA), 4:05 p.m., Root Sports, 1030-AM, 710-AM