Seven weeks into a Seattle baseball season that went south before the team headed north, the Mariners have reached a crisis point.
When they got to .500 after plodding through April and early May, there was a temptation to see their 17-17 record as evidence of untapped potential. The immediate schedule – 11 consecutive games against losing teams – appeared favorable for a reset.
The Mariners went 3-8 over those 11 games, a nosedive especially frustrating because of the opportunity squandered. The Blue Jays, Athletics and White Sox ended this past weekend with a collective record of 69-72 – think of a three-series stretch against them as a Par 3 without any hazards – and yet at the end of the stretch, Seattle was in last place.
If the Mariners manage to escape from the cellar any time soon, it will be a remarkable achievement for a team whose only remarkable achievement in 2017 has been its refusal to pay attention to the deflating big picture.
The short-term picture is just as dicey, thanks to a road trip with a degree of difficulty that’s off the charts. It begins Tuesday in the opener of a three-game series at Washington. From there it’s on to Boston for another three-game series, and then two at Colorado. The Nationals and Rockies are division leaders, and though the Red Sox are a mild disappointment, Fenway Park has a diabolical way of carving up proven big-league pitchers.
No telling what adventures await an injury-depleted starting staff cobbled together from Triple-A.
Before the homestand finale on Sunday, manager Scott Servais was asked if he pondered the make-or-break implications of the 10 days.
“There’s no doubt,” he answered. “Look what we’re up against in terms of injuries, the starting rotation, the teams we’re about to play. But I don’t want to put too much emphasis into ‘Oh my gosh, look at this trip they’re going on.’
“You never know. Maybe somebody gets hot with the bat.”
Given the challenge of identifying starters and sorting out bullpen roles that seem to shift on an hourly basis, more than one hot bat will be required to keep the Mariners afloat.
Robinson Cano, on the disabled list since May 13, returns to the lineup Tuesday. Fellow DL occupant right fielder Mitch Haniger should be back by the end of the month, along with de-facto staff ace James Paxton. But the timetable for proven rotation reinforcements – Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Drew Smyly – is less certain.
It’s likely the roster general manager Jerry Dipoto put together over the offseason will remain a what-coulda-been vision that wasn’t meant to be. A team can endure only so many pulled muscles and soggy arms before its postseason aspirations become unrealistic.
Servais has determined his most urgent priority is convincing his players to maintain faith that the breaks will even out over the course of a 162-game schedule.
“That’s probably the No. 1 thing about my job right now: keep the players from thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, the sky is falling,’ ” he said. “For us to do that, I’ve got to keep the clubhouse loose and keep it fun. It’s hard when you’re not winning, but you’ve got to continue to talk with the guys.
“It does no good to come in here, shut the door, and say ‘woe is us.’ I won’t do it. It’s not my personality. That’s not how you lead.”
Should things turn dire enough for a pep talk, Servais might want to bring up the curious case of the 2014 Royals. Two games under .500 in late July, Kansas City ended up 89-73, worth the wild-card berth they parlayed into playoff dominance.
The October roll ended with the tying run stranded at third base in Game 7 of the World Series. It’s an applicable history lesson for the Mariners, who took the field for their April 10 home opener at five games under .500. On Sunday, a second consecutive blowout defeat to the White Sox left them, yep, five games under 500.
There’s still plenty of time to turn this Season of the Perpetual Headache around, but if the Mariners are as listless on the road trip as they were at the end of their homestand, they’ll be toast before their June 1 return to Safeco Field.
The challenge is simple: Hang on and stay alive in a wild-card race that won’t heat up until the middle of August. The reality? That’s is a bit more complicated.
Very little has gone right for the 2017 Mariners, and any rah-rah words spoken in anticipation the team is due some good fortune will sound hollow if it digs itself into too deep of a hole.
A season is on the line. Already.