John McGrath

John McGrath: Honeymoon period is over for the Mariners

Despite the Mariners’ playoff elimination midway through their 162nd game, Fan Appreciation Day at Safeco Field might as well have been called “Appreciative Fan Day.”

The affection shown baseball players Sunday was an affirmation of sports’ ability to unite people of various ages, cultures and ideologies in a way religion and politics can’t. When the Oakland Athletics’ clinching of the American League’s second wild card berth became official, I assumed the big crowd — it included thousands of last-minute walk-ups — would flock for the exits. Instead, the spectators stayed and cheered and shook their gold King’s Court rags and made waves.

Even though the cause was lost, fans were determined to savor an unexpectedly intriguing season through its last hour.

Just know this: If the 2015 Mariners are similarly eliminated after establishing nothing more than relevance in the AL West, there won’t be another feel-good farewell at Safeco Field.

The long-range forecast is calling for severely increased expectations. Winning 87 games — competing into the fifth inning of the regular-season finale — won’t be regarded as an accomplishment worthy of adulation. It’ll be regarded as a disappointment worthy of ridicule.

Obscured by the excitement of the late September photo finish is the fact the Mariners took third place in a five-team race. Third out of five is fine for fans who began the season with low-spark hopes, but now that the spark has been fanned, so to speak, third out of five won’t cut it.

Manager Lloyd McClendon embraces the challenge and wants his players to embrace it, too.

“I told them it was a hell of a year, and that I was very proud of them,” McClendon said Sunday of his postgame talk in the clubhouse. “I also told them they are no longer the prey — they’re the hunters now. With being hunters, there’s a responsibility to me, this organization and your teammates about how you go about your business.”

Extending the hunt into October will require the Mariners’ front office to pursue a bat with the same aggressiveness that brought All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano to Seattle last winter. Because the free-agent market won’t be teeming with impact bats, compromises are necessary.

In a perfect world, for instance, potential Tigers free agent Victor Martinez is 26 years old and eager to hook up with a Mariners team on the cusp of the playoffs. But Martinez turns 36 in December, and whatever eagerness he’s got about relocating to the Pacific Northwest will be mitigated by the suspicion his superior offensive numbers — he hit .335, with 32 homers and 103 RBIs — are likely reduced in Safeco Field.

It’ll take a crazy contract to woo Martinez, a contract that’s the very definition of high risk, high reward. The risk? He’ll likely be guaranteed a minimum of $15 million a season until he turns 40. The reward? He’s a switch-hitting monster whose OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of .974 this season was tops in the AL.

Complicating the scenario is general manager Jack Zduriencik’s mixed-bag history of acquiring veterans. When he was a scout combing high school and college fields for talent, Zduriencik had few peers. As a GM, his most conspicuous successes (Cano and starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma) have been offset by his failures: Chone Figgins, Milton Bradley, Jesus Montero, Corey Hart, Justin Smoak.

Zduriencik received high grades for his work preceding the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline, when he obtained Kendrys Morales, Austin Jackson and Chris Denorfia in deals that didn’t cost the farm system any coveted prospects. Those grades, in retrospect, were premature.

Morales, who sat out the first half of the season in anticipation of a massive contract, never was able to scrape off the rust. Useless in the field and something akin to a glacier on the basepaths, all the Mariners asked of Morales was to hit.

He hit .207.

Meanwhile, Jackson, touted as the answer to a longtime leadoff-man quandary, hit .229 with no homers. Denorfia’s “contribution” over the two-month stretch drive was a .195 batting average and five RBIs.

Zduriencik must do better during the winter, because the competition in the AL West isn’t regressing anytime soon. The Angels and A’s will contend, that’s a given, and it’s also a given the Rangers won’t be haunted by injuries for second consecutive season. And then there’s the Astros. Their otherwise difficult transition to the AL has proven to be a pain in the neck (among other places) for the Mariners, who lost four out of six against them in September.

Merely splitting those six games would’ve forced a Monday tiebreaker at Safeco Field, and winning four of the six would’ve assured the Mariners a wild card spot. We’re not talking about reinventing the wheel here. We’re talking about a team with playoff aspirations winning a couple of late-season games against a team without them.

“You can always say, ‘Coulda, woulda, shoulda...we should’ve won this amount,’ ” McClendon concluded Sunday. “But you also could’ve lost a few, too. It just wasn’t in the cards for us.

“We’ll be better. We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ll have to roll up our sleeves and get it done.”

McClendon’s analysis, if nothing else, gave the Mariners’ marketing department a slogan it might want to adopt for 2015.

Get It Done.