There’s a point in a season, whatever the sport, when it’s necessary to recognize the difference between routine and urgent.
For the Mariners, that time is now. As their consistently frustrating spring comes to a close — summer begins Tuesday night at 9:24 — they’re awaiting a phase of the schedule that amounts to a last chance.
The Mariners have 19 games left before the All-Star break, 16 of them at Safeco Field. There’s a ton of ground to make up for a team on pace to finish 76-85, but a 16-of-19 home stretch could work wonders.
Enough, though, of the “there’s still plenty of baseball left” talk. It’s not early anymore. One step forward followed by two steps back can’t be an option.
The pitching rotation figures to be solidified by the return of Felix Hernandez. The King’s two recent rehab starts in Tacoma went much better than his first, when he appeared to fulfill the prediction offered by former Mariners’ coach Andy Van Slyke that the six-time All Star was at the end of the road.
If a 31-year old Hernandez is able to remotely resemble a 29-year old Hernandez, it’ll serve as an emotional booster shot for a staff desperate for emotional booster shots.
The fill-ins from Triple-A are, well, fill-ins from Triple-A. Enigmatic lefty James Paxton is a lights-out talent with a tendency to perform as if there are no lights on between his ears. Ariel Miranda can be forgiven the occasional clunker — 14 of his 24 career starts have been made this season — but how long will the Mariners keep allowing Yovani Gallardo (281 career starts) to get shelled in the first inning?
Acquiring Gallardo and his $11-million contract for 2017 was not general manager Jerry Dipoto’s wisest decision, but he’s made some: Rookie outfielders Mitch Haniger, Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia showed up in Seattle without acclaim, and have brought energy to positions once occupied by the sedentary likes of Seth Smith and Cory Hart.
Dipoto also demonstrated admirable patience with catcher Mike Zunino, transformed from a .170 hitter who had no a clue into a .250 power hitter who has discovered the benefits of riding outside pitches to the opposite field.
When shortstop Jean Segura rejoins the Mariners this week after recovering from a high ankle sprain, the lineup finally might look like what Dipoto had in mind: Speed at the top and bottom, mashers in the middle, a batting order with the potential of scoring five runs on any given night.
The addition of Hernandez to the pitching mix figures to energize a critically pivotal home stand. Four games against the underachieving Tigers, three against the juggernaut Astros, two against the hapless Phillies, this is crunch time.
After a three-game road series against the Angels, the Mariners will return home for three games against with the Royals and four against the Athletics: Crunch time, part two.
Then there’s a breather for the All-Star Game, when Dipoto will have four days to determine whether the Mariners are reloading or rebuilding.
If it’s the latter, Nelson Cruz presents an obvious trade chip. He turns 37 on July 1, and misgivings about his outfield defense — specifically, misgivings about sustaining an injury playing the outfield — reduce the designated hitter’s trade value by half.
Cruz profiles as a pinch hitter in the N.L., but remains a formidable cleanup man in the A.L.
The Mariners could pick up two or three intriguing prospects by dealing a 100-RBI machine.
But hey, first things first.
Although Seattle’s season might be on life support, it isn’t dead. The wild card is up for grabs.
Plenty of baseball left, to be sure, but if the Mariners don’t take advantage of the three-week window in front of them, we’re talking about a lost cause.
“Urgent” is the operative word.
No others apply.