The 2017 baseball schedule recently extended the Mariners what amounted to a mid-season lifeline: A 19-game stretch, with 16 of the games at home.
Taking advantage of the three-week calendar quirk was seen as critical because the schedule enacts revenge in August. (Definition of revenge: a road trip that begins in Tampa Bay and ends in Baltimore, with stops in between at New York and Atlanta.)
The Mariners initial response to the opportunity was to put together a clicking-in-every-phase streak of five consecutive home victories. Momentum was palpable.
But then they lost a home series to the best team in the majors (Houston), and another series to the worst team in the majors (Philadelphia), and all of the sudden, it was Felix Hernandez’ task Tuesday to stop a five-game home losing skid at Safeco Field.
So much for momentum.
Although the quest to clinch a wild-card berth — what’s looking like a road game against the Yankees — remains intact, the question of whether Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto will be a trade-deadline buyer has become moot.
A GM who wishes to keep his job doesn’t deal away farm-system talent for a slim chance of occupying the role of road team in a one-game playoff. Given how the market is overloaded with fringe contenders, obtaining an established starting pitcher — Oakland’s Sonny Gray, say — would cost the Mariners both an everyday position player and a top prospect.
Dipoto will enjoy much more flexibility during the winter, when he won’t be constrained by a seller-heavy market. He’ll also have some payroll room to beef up the pitching staff through free agency.
The Mariners figure to be off the hook with starter Drew Smyly, drawing $6.85 million during a season when he won’t appear in a game. Smyly is awaiting the Tommy John surgery that will keep him sidelined until 2019, and though the team has the option of controlling the lefty’s contract for the purpose of extending it, that won’t happen.
It’s almost certain the Seattle phase of Smyly’s career is history. For that matter, it’s almost certain fellow starter Hisashi Iwakuma, whose shoulder injury has prevented him from pitching since May 3, won’t return, either.
Iwakuma’s $15 million contract extension hinged on him working 324 innings between 2016 and 2017. He threw 199 innings a year ago but has been limited to 31 innings this season. Even if the veteran recovers from his shoulder issues and ends up contributing after the All-Star break, he’s not coming close to the 324-inning incentive clause.
The good news for Dipoto is that he’ll have some cash from the jettisoning of Smyly and Iwakuma. The not-so-good news is that there are at least two spots to fill in a rotation Hernandez no longer anchors.
Royals leadoff hitter Whit Merrifield turned on King Felix’s first pitch Tuesday for a solo homer. The Mariners answered with a pair runs in the bottom of the inning, but Hernandez was rocked the second time through the Kansas City lineup.
During his start previous to Tuesday, Hernandez settled into a rhythm after allowing the Phillies to score three runs in the third. It wasn’t Hernandez at his best, but he kept his team in position to win.
Hernandez couldn’t do that against the Royals, whose six hits off the right-hander included five for extra bases. He struck out five, but watching him labor on the same mound where he once achieved perfection was difficult to the point of painful.
Four walks and two wild pitches compounded a frustrating afternoon that left the former ace 3-3 and his team 41-44.
When the schedule gives you 16 home games in 19 dates before the All-Star Game, it’s a gift-wrapped opportunity to surge into the break. Instead, the Mariners are fading to the back of a very crowded pack.
“Offensively, we have not swung the bat well here at home for five or six games,” manager Scott Servais said after the 7-3 defeat. “We get rallies going, and we’re not getting the big hit — the two-out double to kind of kick start it, and then everybody relaxes and you go from there.
“The guys are pressing a little bit. They want to get it going back at home. They know it’s important to finish on a high note heading into the break, and it’s just not happening right now.”
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath