John McGrath

John McGrath: Mariners aiming for AL West title, not just wild-card spot

Among Bud Selig’s most substantial accomplishments as Major League Baseball commissioner was his successful push for wild-card teams.

The wild card works on two fronts. It essentially prevents legitimate playoff qualifiers from missing the postseason, as the San Francisco Giants were forced to do in 1993. A classic pennant race between the Atlanta Braves and Giants came down to the final day, and though some purists bemoan how the integrity of the season has been compromised with wild cards, it’s difficult to justify a system in which the team with the second-most victories — the Giants won 103 times — are denied a seat at the table.

More relevant to the Seattle Mariners, the wild card provides a lifeline for teams that once might have been tempted to bag their playoff hopes. Thanks to the 2012 addition of a second wild-card berth, when general manager Jack Zduriencik glanced at the AL West standings on July 31, he wasn’t discouraged to see the A’s and Los Angeles Angels well ahead of the Mariners, who trailed the A’s by 11 games and the Angels by 91/2.

Instead of trading away talent to acquire prospects and cut payroll, Zduriencik took an opposite approach with deadline-deal trades for veteran outfielders Chris Denorfia and Austin Jackson.

So here’s to the wild card, the gift that keeps on giving for baseball fans able to follow games that finally mean something in August.

Take a bow, WC. Please know our affection for you is genuine, and that our love is unconditional.

Now scram.

The Mariners are poised to qualify for the playoffs the old-fashioned way: By finishing in first place, a perk difficult to overemphasize. A wild card is the equivalent of a one-day pass into the playoffs, and while pitcher Felix Hernandez would give the Mariners a better-than-even chance to survive a loser-out elimination match, there’s no guarantee the rotation cycle will swing to a rested Hernandez for Game No. 163.

And even if it does, other pitfalls await. We got a sneak preview of them over the weekend in Detroit, where home-plate umpire Tony Randazzo decided to change the definition of a strike zone from top of a batter’s belt buckle to the bottom of a batter’s belt buckle.

Randazzo apparently has some latent contempt for Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon, who became the umpire’s first ejection victim of the season Saturday, then his second Sunday. The follow-up ejection was particularly troublesome, steeped in a G-rated gesture made toward Randazzo from the first-base dugout — it translated into “phooey,” — and suggested a feud the umpire believes is personal.

In any case, should the Mariners advance to a wild-card game, MLB would be wise to keep Tony Randazzo a few thousand miles away from it. But you never know, and that’s the point: Too much is left to chance — a bad hop here, a ball lost in the sun or the lights there — when a six-month long season is reduced to nine innings.

A one-game playoff is incomparable theater, as the Mariners proved against the Angels in 1995. (My favorite memory: When Randy Johnson threw his first pitch, which Tony Phillips took for a strike, it produced spontaneous-combustion response from the fans in the Kingdome. The Angels, I thought to myself, don’t stand a chance against this guy, and this crowd.)

But there’s a flip side to a one-game playoff, too, and it’s scary. Say Hernandez is available to start. He delivers the first pitch over the edge of the plate — paints the corner masterfully — and it’s called like this:

Ball one.

The scenario devolves from there.

The Mariners can avoid that by finishing in first place, which is not as preposterous a notion as it seemed when the non-waiver trade deadline expired 21/2 weeks ago.

Since acquiring Denorfia and Jackson, the Mariners have gone 12-4 — second-best record in baseball over that span, exceeded only by the Royals’ 14-3.

Meanwhile, the A’s, who doubled down with deadline trades designed to make their starting rotation foolproof for the playoffs, have been mired in an offensive funk. The A’s have scored three or fewer runs 16 times in 20 games, which helps explains how they lost their grip on first place to the Angels.

The Mariners are playing better than either team, and here’s what’s encouraging: Even when McClendon was posting a daily lineup card best recalled as “Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, Mike Zunino, and a bunch of dudes who belong in Triple-A,” his team held its own against the Angels, winning seven of 12.

The Mariners are 7-4 against the A’s, but since their most recent encounter — a weekend series at Safeco Field, immediately preceding the All-Star break — Seattle’s batting order has been by overhauled while Oakland, which parted with slugger Yoenis Cespedes in the trade for Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester, has regressed.

An AL West race that looked like a two-foot putt for the A’s to clinch could hinge on six September games against the Mariners, who will face the Angels in seven other September games.

In other words, first place is up for grabs, and the Mariners, longtime proponents of the benefits of run prevention, now are jelling with a lineup capable of scoring runs.

Thanks, wild card, for bringing so much intrigue into a season that would’ve been a boring grind two decades ago. You’ve been a salvation, a reason to believe, but there’s a door on the side and feel free to use it.

The Mariners don’t need your lifeline anymore. They can win this thing on their own.