Because a schedule lasts six months, a major league baseball team rarely provides the precise date a season turns south.
But give the Mariners this much: They made a clearly identifiable break that separates long-shot playoff hopes from shot playoff hopes, and they made it in about 24 hours, just as July gave way to August.
Early Sunday evening, the Mariners had a 6-0 lead over the Cubs at Chicago. The Cubs are explosive, and deficits tend to be temporary in Wrigley Field, but what were the odds of Felix Hernandez failing to win on a night he was staked to a six-run advantage?
A second consecutive road victory for the Mariners, over the team with baseball’s best record, might have supplied traction for the winning streak that has eluded them. But Cubs manager Joe Madden, in the manner of a calm astronaut who has lost contact with ground control, kept pushing buttons, and each button was the correct button.
Using starting pitcher Jon Lester as a 12th-inning pinch hitter? Telling him to put down a two-strike bunt with the winning run on third base? Seriously?
The 7-6 defeat was devastating, as it prevented the Mariners from beginning a potentially significant homestand with tangible momentum. Jet-lagged and sapped of energy, they wasted James Paxton’s stellar silencing of Boston’s big-boom bats at Safeco Field.
Everything was in place for the Mariners, who have yet to win more than four games in a row, to take a three-game winning streak into Tuesday night. Instead, they relied on spot starter Wade LeBlanc to stop a two-game losing streak.
In the middle of this 24-hour free fall was the non-waiver trade deadline, which came and went without general manager Jerry Dipoto able to execute any move that could be described as an upgrade. Money saved in one contract-dump deal — starter Wade Miley to Baltimore for Triple-A pitcher Ariel Miranda — supposedly was earmarked for the acquisition of Cincinnati shortstop Zack Cozart. But the Reds were distracted by some medical questions involving prospects included in the trade that sent outfielder Jay Bruce to the Mets, and by the time those issues were resolved, the 1 p.m. Monday trade deadline translated into midnight for the Mariners.
Although Dipoto’s hands were tied on the trade front, he made an internal maneuver that further suggests 2016 to be a lost cause. Replacing ineffective veteran Steve Cishek as closer with electrifying rookie Edwin Diaz is sensible. When this season is analyzed in retrospect, the decision that converted Diaz from Double-A starter to major league reliever will rank as Dipoto’s wisest.
But there’s no way a minor league call-up, who is used to shutting down his arm around Labor Day, can be expected to close games through September, much less participate in any high-stress playoff games in October.
Maybe Cishek rediscovers himself in a set-up role, to the point he’s confident to close again. And maybe Diaz is used sparingly, to the point the Mariners won’t be putting a mortgage on the future of the organization’s most impressive power pitcher.
A maybe here, a maybe there, add it up and it amounts to a praying for a miracle.
A miracle is not out of the question, by the way. The Mariners’ 52-52 record going into Tuesday recalls the similarly mediocre mark the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays posted through 104 games, when they were 53-51. The Blue Jays finished 93-69, worth first place in the American League East.
“We’re a game over .500,” Dipoto said Monday, before the Mariners fell to .500. “We are realistic about where we are in the playoff push. We feel like we have a chance in August and September, but obviously, a lot of things would have to break right for us. The best thing we can do is focus on the good parts of our roster and how we are going to transition into 2017, ’18 and ’19.”
In other words, don’t hold your breath.
On the bright side? The Mariners, who last season spent one day over .500 after beating the Angels in the opener, enjoyed four months over .500 this season. The ambition was to survive through the middle of September, on pace for 83-85 victories, and then accelerate that pace with a stretch run for the 88-90 victories needed for a wild-card berth.
The ambition won’t be achieved, but for four months, it seemed plausible. One bad day shouldn’t spoil a six-month long season, and yet, one bad day did just that.
Thanks, Mariners, for the memories. You took us all the way to August, which is only a month removed from Labor Day, and two months removed from the playoffs, and three months removed from the conclusion of the World Series.