Today’s Mariners’ minor-league report.
(Note: I originally said the tombstone story appeared on May 24, 2005. Upon further research, I realize that it was actually one week later).
On June 1, 2005 – five years ago next week – the city of Houston woke up to this massive headline splashed across the sports page of the Houston Chronicle: “Grave Circumstances.”
Underneath, the sub-headline said, “The cold, hard truth: It’s over; Yes, there are 111 games left on the schedule, but the Astros might as well start thinking about next year.”
Just to drive home the point, the front page of sports contained a drawing of a tombstone that covered nearly half the page. On the tombstone was written “RIP: Astros Season.”
The Astros were 19-32 on June 1, 2005, in last place in the NL Central, buried 14 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals. A week earlier, that had hit rock bottom at 15-30, 14 games behind the Cardinals and 11 behind the wild-card leading Arizona.
Their season was, by all logic, dead.
Here’s how Chronicle columnist John Lopez, two days earlier, had summarized the team’s offensive woes that led them into this seemingly insurmountable hole, in an article headlined, “Anemic Bats Threaten To Splinter Club.” Sound familiar?
ARLINGTON – A shutout. A beautiful pitching performance wasted. A sweep on the road.
It is the song that never ends.
Watching this Astros club is like taking your kids to Disney World and riding It’s A Small World 37 times in a row.
Good intentions are spoiled. A sweet song becomes insufferable. A nice, sunny day at the park begins torturing the senses as the same excruciating chorus bounces around in your head.
Whenever this nauseating 2005 ride ends, never let it be said that when the Astros were at their worst they were inconsistent.
We’ve seen what happened over and over again Sunday in a 2-0 loss to the Texas Rangers so many times that Astros manager Phil Garner even talked about slapping a different headline on the same old song.
You could see the frustration in Garner’s face. He’s the one saddled with an inferior mix of talent, yet it is his charge to find a way to make it work.
“I hate losing. I don’t care how it is,” Garner said. “It stinks. We’re losing. Analyze the (bleep) out of it; it doesn’t matter. We lost.”
Yet as much as Sunday’s defeat looked and felt like so many other wasted opportunities in this 15-28 season, you get the sense things will get much worse if the offense does not show some sign of life or accountability.
This was the second 2-0 loss Roy Oswalt suffered as a result of his teammates’ failing to come up with runs in key situations.
The best chance came in the first inning with runners at the corners and nobody out. But Craig Biggio struck out, Lance Berkman hit into a fielder’s choice that got Orlando Palmeiro thrown out at the plate, and Mike Lamb flied out.
Later, Biggio flied out with a runner on second base and grounded out with a runner on second.
Berkman also came up empty with a runner in scoring position in the sixth inning.
That’s why these losses confound and frustrate more than any 18-3 or 16-0 debacle. The Astros had the chance to strike back and steal a victory throughout, even sending two of their most experienced and reliable players to the plate.
But they were snuffed out and suffered their seventh shutout loss of the season, which keeps this club on pace to break the most dubious mark in its record book – getting shut out 23 times in 1963.
There’s much more, but you get the point. The Astros were a team in disarray – and improbably became the team that doggedly optimistic Mariners fans should cling to as their shining hope. The Mariners, at 16-28, have a very comparable record to the Astros team that was deemed dead and buried at the same point in the season.
Houston owner Drayton McLain stubbornly refused to break up the club for prospects, as many were clamoring. And something amazing happened. The Astros, without making any major acquisitions, took off. (They did try to make one move, but the Mariners’ Jamie Moyer invoked his trade-veto rights to turn down a trade to Houston). From the low point of 15-30, they played .632 ball the rest of the season to finish 89-73 – good enough to win the NL wild-card berth on the final day over the Phillies. And then they surged past the Braves in the first round of the playoffs, and knocked off the 100-win Cardinals – who had won the NL Central over the Astros by 11 games – in the National League Championship Series.
The RIP Astros made the World Series, where they were swept in four games by the Chicago White Sox. They were the first team since the 1914 Boston Braves to go from 15 games under .500 to the World Series.
Are the ’05 Astros a viable role model for Seattle? Or would it be foolish for the Mariners to cling to false hopes at the expense of necessary rebuilding? Tough, tough question, one I’m sure the Mariners’ management is grappling with each passing day.
Let’s take a closer look at those Astros. Like the Mariners, their strength was their pitching, led by three studs – Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte, who finished third, fourth and sixth in the Cy Young voting. They had a lockdown closer in Brad Lidge (42 saves), and solid setup men.
This was an Astros team that had won the NL wild card berth the previous year, so they had a greater legacy to build upon than these Mariners. But they had let go key players like Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltran (who had given them a huge lift in 2004 after coming over from Kansas City in a June 24 trade, hitting 23 homers in 90 games, and eight more homers in 12 playoff games as the Astros lost to St. Louis in the NLCS.
Furthermore, star first baseman Lance Berkman missed the first month of the season with a knee injury, a major factor in their early offensive struggles. And they had a beloved superstar, Jeff Bagwell, who was being phased out because of injury. Bagwell, 37, played in 39 games and contributed just three homers and 19 RBI.
The Mariners have two comparable horses atop their rotation in Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez, and they have the league’s ERA leader in Doug Fister. No question they have the starting pitching to pull themselves out of this hole. But can their offense wake up to the extent that Houston’s did? The Astros (playing in hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park) ended up with four players having 24 or more homers, led by third baseman Morgan Ensberg with 36, outfielder Jason Lane and second baseman Craig Biggio with 26, and Berkman with 24. Berkman and Ensberg both ended up with OPS’s (on-base plus slugging) over .900, Lane over .800, and Biggio at .792. The current Mariners have just one regular over .800 OPS (Ichiro at .829), plus Mike Sweeney (.932), Ryan Langerhans (.861), Mike Saunders (.867) and Josh Bard (1.101).
So, let us say there is room for growth, offensively. But is there room for hope? Look, every struggling team since 2005 has focused on the Astros and other rare examples of mid-season transformation for hope. But the stark fact is that most teams which are struggling this late in the season continue to struggle, because of their inherent flaws that got them into that mess in the first place.
The Mariners are coming close to their moment of reckoning, what with the demand that is sure to grow for rent-a-player Cliff Lee as the trade deadline nears. But there’s still a small, ever-shrinking window for them to rewrite the seemingly inevitable narrative of surrender that seems to be in their future.
If they want to emulate the 2005 Astros, it would behoove them to start, you know, winning. Otherwise, the headline will soon be written on the tombstone: RIP: Mariners season.
(Photo by Associated Press)