John McGrath

Just when you think the Mariners are out of it, they keep pulling themselves back in

When Edwin Diaz gave up three runs in the ninth to the Angels on Aug. 10, it seem to start a Mariners tailspin. But a couple wins over the Orioles showed this team, with all its flaws, is not one to be counted out.
When Edwin Diaz gave up three runs in the ninth to the Angels on Aug. 10, it seem to start a Mariners tailspin. But a couple wins over the Orioles showed this team, with all its flaws, is not one to be counted out. The Associated Press

It’s been 10 days since Edwin Diaz threw the pitch that I thought doomed wild-card hopes in Seattle, finally and once and for all.

Seems like a year ago.

The team was opening a homestand with four games against the surging Angels, and between the imminent jersey-retirement ceremony for Edgar Martinez and James Paxton’s bid to become the first Mariners pitcher to win eight consecutive decisions, Safeco Field attained an energy level associated with the stadium up the street..

The Mariners were down 3-0 in the top of the seventh when a bunch of stuff happened: Paxton winced and was escorted off the mound by trainer Rick Griffin, and an inning later, Nelson Cruz hit a two-run homer that tied the score.

Enter Diaz, still in the growing-pains phase of his career as a closer. He walked the first two batters, and with runners on second and third, Diaz needed to escape the two-out jam by retiring Cameron Maybin, because Mike Trout was on-deck.

Diaz lost Maybin on a full-count walk, and then Trout did what Trout does, scorching an 0-1 slider down the left-field line, scoring the three runs that gave the Angels a 6-3 victory.

Surrendering a double to the best hitter in baseball could be forgiven. It was the walk to Maybin, I determined, that potentially defined this most frustrating of seasons.

“The Mariners are cooked,” I announced in a loud voice. “Thousands of pitches are thrown over six months, but sometimes, all it takes is one to sour the party.”

My good friend, Seattle Times baseball writer Ryan Divish, noted how 56 games remained on the schedule. Identifying a single pitch, delivered on Aug. 10, as a difference-maker? That’s absurd.

The Mariners went on to lose the next four, going from three games over .500 to two games under .500. My sense that Diaz’ walk to Maybin was a turning point appeared prescient ... until the homestand from hell was partially salvaged by taking two of three from the Orioles.

And when Erasmo Ramirez was staked to an early lead Friday night at Tampa Bay and protected it — he allowed only two hits and one run through six innings, the essence of a quality start and bordering on something historic for the 2017 Mariners — I realized the only way to follow this predictably unpredictable team is to draw no conclusions.

The Mariners’s flaws are both obvious (a starting rotation culled from Triple-A) and subtle (miscues on the base paths, the result of some strange combination of inattentiveness and reckless aggressiveness.) When your starter is laboring to get through four innings, every out is precious.

Here’s some not-so-breaking news: The other AL wild-card contenders also are flawed, desperate for back-of-the-rotation arms and fresh supplements for overworked bullpens.

It’s not so much a race to the October finish line as a race to September, when rosters can be expanded from 25 players to 40.

In the meantime, adjust that 87-88-win threshold for wild-card contention to, say, 83, which poses a question: Does a team that finishes 83-79 have any chance of advancing in the playoffs?

Of course it does, and chances of advancement are enhanced by the reality the 83-79 club enters the playoffs in a month-long playoff mode where every game has counted.

Take, for example, the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, whose 83-victory campaign included two skids of eight games and another of seven. The Cards lost more games than they won in the months of June, August and September.

Aside from Chris Carpenter’s ace-like numbers — 15-8, 3.09 ERA — the rotation was a mess, as no other starter finished with an ERA below 4.00.

But the Cardinals somehow advanced past the Padres in the first round, and the Mets in the league championship series, and they required a mere five games to beat the heavily favored Tigers in the World Series.

The 2006 Cardinals were a middle-of-the-road team, beneficiaries of a weak NL Central and the ability of Hall-of-Fame manager Tony La Russa to mix and match lineups, while juggling his uncertain rotation, against superior opponents.

He got on a hot roll at the right time, in other words. It’s a peculiar baseball tradition: middling teams struggling to stay above .500 over six months can turn into championship teams over three weeks.

The key is to get there, to get foot in the door before it shuts.

I was convinced the door shut on the Mariners 10 days ago, with one pitch, and that shows what I know.

From now on, any prognostications about the Mariners wild-card push will be dictated by a voice in the back of my mind, or the front of it — there’s not an abundance of space in between — speaking to me in a stern term.