The baseball cognoscenti like to say that the MLB season is a marathon.
Oh, no, that’s selling it short. This is way longer than a marathon.
This thing goes from the February start of spring training to the November World Series conclusion.
Baseball takes longer than human gestation.
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So suggesting that any team is entering a key stretch of games in June is to ignore the wisdom cultivated over more than a century.
But here it is.
Heading into Monday’s game against Cleveland at Safeco Field, the Mariners had 33 games lined up before the July 11 All-Star break.
In that span, they have 27 games against teams at or above .500. Fourteen of those games are against teams leading or tied for division leads, and five series pit them against teams that were in the 2015 postseason.
These Mariners, in the first season under general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais, have exceeded most expectations already, not only hanging near the top of the division, but being exciting, fun and interesting.
But staying afloat during the next month is important in the process of hardening the foundation upon which long-term competitiveness can be built.
At the very least, this is a chance to prove they can stack up against some of the best.
They limped into this scenario having lost seven of their past 10. Their regal starter Felix Hernandez might be out for an indeterminate span with a calf injury, and the starting rotation has been inconsistent.
That makes this a month of games that can validate Seattle’s promising start and solidify the suspicion that this team has what it takes to remain in contention well into the fall.
Before Monday night’s game with the American League Central-leading Indians, Servais answered predictably when asked about the next month of challenges: He’s got more immediate concerns than examining the opponents on the docket for the next 33 games.
After giving up 47 runs in the previous five games, Servais pinpointed the obvious: “I’m focused on how we’re playing right now. The biggest thing for us is we’ve got to get our starting pitching back on track. It all starts with starting pitching. I don’t care if you’re playing teams above .500 or below .500, starting pitching drives the train.”
His job is to keep it on the tracks.
And, as he pointed out, they haven’t always dominated sub-.500 teams they’ve faced.
Catcher Chris Iannetta has played nearly 900 big-league games, so he’s familiar with the rhythms and fluctuating tides of seasons.
An underappreciated factor in the demands of a schedule is the placement of days off. The M’s have only two between now and July 11.
“Long stretches without days off can get tough; that’s sometimes more important than the quality of teams you’re playing,” Iannetta said. “It makes it important for the coaches to really manage the pitchers and the bullpen to make sure guys aren’t getting overworked.”
Yes, Iannetta agreed, the focus has to be on each game, and the series at hand, for which they study their scouting reports. But occasionally he looks ahead to what the schedule has in store.
And a part of how a team fares, against either great teams or the bottom-dwellers, is how the players collectively cope with the inevitable problems that arise.
“Team chemistry is very important over the course of a long season,” Iannetta said. “I think anything good or bad gets magnified depending on the chemistry a team has. Everything you have to deal with is easier when you have a good clubhouse and you’re there for each other.”
Does that apply to the Mariners?
“That’s what we have here. It makes it so much easier to weather adversity when you’ve got that,” Iannetta said.
Even with the recent skid in Texas, the 2016 Mariners feel like a team on the rise, a team with a lot of talent and a competitive attitude.
We’ll see where that all gets them come mid-July.
Strength of schedule
The Mariners, after dropping three games to division-rival Texas over the weekend, won’t find any breaks in the schedule anytime soon. A closer look:
▪ 27 of the next 33 games before the All-Star break are against teams that are .500 or better
▪ 14 of those games are against teams in first place or tied for first
▪ 5 of the 10 teams they play in this span made the playoffs in 2015 (Kansas City, Texas, Houston, St. Louis, Pittsburgh)