John McGrath

John McGrath: Get ready for a wild wild-card ride

I did something at a baseball game Sunday I haven’t done in years: I checked the Safeco Field scoreboard for updates on games of the Seattle Mariners’ playoff-race rivals.

Whenever there was a lull during the series finale between the Mariners and White Sox — and once things were turned over to the bullpens, there were a lot of lulls — I glanced to left field to see what the Blue Jays were up to in Toronto, and what the Royals had going on in San Francisco.

It has been so long since the Mariners gave fans a reason to care about their own games in August, I’d forgotten how fun it is to care about games not involving the Mariners.

After a full dose — OK, an overdose — of the Fernando Rodney Experience in the top of the ninth (he ended up earning his 33rd save by striking out the side, but not before the White Sox pushed a run across the plate and left the bases loaded), I asked Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon if he, too, occasionally monitored the progress of other games on the scoreboard.

I expected a stock answer along the lines of “it’s way too early to be worried about anybody but ourselves,” but McClendon went the other way.

“I’ve been scoreboard watching since April,” he said. “I’m interested in everybody.”

What about his players? Are they similarly curious?

“I hope so,” he answered. “It’s getting to that point that if they’re not excited now, I don’t know when the heck they’ll ever get excited.”

They sounded excited Sunday, and not just because recently acquired leadoff man Austin Jackson accounted for all four Mariners runs with two doubles. The 4-2 victory gave them the opportunity to open a pivotal home series against the Blue Jays with the momentum of a team on a roll.

“Everybody in this clubhouse believes we’ve got a good shot to make a big push for the second wild card, if not contend for the first wild card,” said reliever Dominic Leone, who earned the decision Sunday by replacing starter Erasmo Ramirez with one out and one on in the fifth and inducing a double-play ground ball off the bat of Gordon Beckham. “The standings speak for themselves.”

Ah, yes, the standings. The third-place Mariners aren’t relevant in the conventional standings — Oakland has a 10-game lead on them in the AL West — but they’re in the thick of a wild race for an aptly named wild card. They trail Kansas City by one and a half games, are neck-and-neck with Toronto, and have opened up a one-game lead on the Yankees.

Four teams are bidding for one playoff spot, and it’s conceivable Cleveland and Tampa Bay could join them and turn the next seven weeks into a six-team free-for-all.

Sunday offered a sneak preview of the kind of suspense that might await in September. With two outs and the bases loaded in the ninth, the Safeco Field crowd of 27,236 was on its feet and yet eerily silent, too nervous to do anything but hold its collective breath.

It wasn’t until Rodney worked the count on Jordan Danks to 0-2 that noise typical of a ninth-inning closing situation was heard. When Rodney coaxed a helpless swing from Danks for strike three, the prevailing emotion was less exhilaration than a sudden liberation from stomach-turning angst.

Welcome, folks, to an authentic playoff race.

“I hope we’re making our fans proud,” said McClendon. “You play this game, obviously, because everybody likes to be paid. But there’s nothing like cheers, particularly at home. It’s nice, the type of support we’re getting.”

McClendon then referenced a remark former manager Lou Piniella made during his weekend visit for induction into the Mariners Hall of Fame.

“Lou hit the nail right on the head: We’re good, and we’ve got a chance to do something special. Our guys believe. I hope our fans do, too.”

The Mariners will enter an even more urgent phase Monday night, when ace Felix Hernandez will attempt to improve upon his big-league record of 15 consecutive starts designated as “ultra” quality: seven innings pitched without allowing more than two runs.

The Blue Jays will counter with the right-handed Drew Hutchison, who faced 27 Baltimore batters in his last start and retired 26 of them.

Back to the scoreboard watch: McClendon’s players were out of the showers and in their street clothes Sunday by the time Toronto finally beat Detroit in 19 innings. Think the Mariners have momentum? The Jays came back from a five-run deficit against Detroit — with David Price on the mound — and won on a Jose Bautista RBI single after 6 hours and 37 minutes, the longest game in Toronto franchise history.

But for all their drama, 19-inning games that take 6 hours, 37 minutes to play have a way of taxing relievers.

“It can’t hurt,” Leone said of the possibility the Jays’ bullpen will be thin for the series opener. “But you know what? Whether they’re at full strength or struggling a little bit, we’re ready to fight.”

Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy seven-week ride.