(Mike Morse rounds the bases after a recent home run. Photo by Associated Press)
The Mariners have a three-game interlude in Washington D.C. before returning home for the fun and frivolity of being the visiting team in their home ballpark this weekend against the Florida Marlins (a series that will also bring 80-year-old Jack McKeon, the Marlins’ new manager, to town. Unless I’m missing something, this will be McKeon’s first time managing in Seattle since July 6, 1978, when his Oakland A’s lost 3-2 to the Mariners in front of a crowd of 7,523 at the Kingdome. Tom Paciorek’s two-run single in the seventh made a winner of Paul Mitchell. Thirty-three years later, I’m sure he’ll be anxious to avenge that defeat).
Before that, though, the Mariners have these three with the Nationals, bringing together the only remaining teams among the 30 in MLB to have never played in the World Series. It’s a list that keeps shrinking, but not fast enough for the M’s and the former Montreal Expos. In the last decade alone, six first-timers have broken through into the Fall Classic: the Rangers (2010), Rays (2008), Rockies (2007), Astros (2005), Angels (2002) and Diamondbacks (2001).
The Nationals were struggling enough at the beginning of the month that MLB.com was speculating about the job status of manager Jim Riggleman, never a good sign. But the Nats ran off an eight-game winning streak before losing Sunday to the Orioles, and have their record at 35-37. That’s not bad considering Washington has
had the No. 1 draft pick the last two drafts before this one (netting Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, a pair they hope will be the cornerstone of that elusive World Series run) by virtue of losing 103 and 102 games (they improved to “only” 93 losses last year).
The Nats are hitting just .236 as a team, 28th-lowest in baseball, ahead of only San Diego’s .233 and, of course, the Mariners’ .229. But one person who is hitting with a vengeance is former Mariner Mike Morse, who is being touted as an All-Star candidate. The M’s acquired Morse (along with Miguel Olivo and Jeremy Reed) in the June 27, 2004 trade with the White Sox for Freddy Garcia and Ben Davis, and then traded him almost five years later to the day (June 28, 2009) to the Nationals for Ryan Langerhans.
Here’s a Washington Post story from today on the rise of Morse, who since taking over from injured first baseman Adam LaRoche on May 22 has hit more homers, 11, than anyone in baseball. His .921 OPS ranks 12th in the majors, and his .564 slugging percentage is fifth in the National League.
Could Morse have put up those numbers at Safeco Field? Probably not, but he’s turned into a far more impactful hitter than many thought he would. Morse’s only real chance to play in Seattle came in 2008, when he had a torrid spring, hitting .492, and was going to be the regular right fielder. But five games into the season he tore up his shoulder diving for a ball, and that was that. The Post story has this quote from Tacoma manager Daren Brown: “I thought he would always be able to hit, The thing we had with him here was, where was he going to play? He’s kind of slipped around all over the field, really trying to find a spot to get his bat in the lineup.”
The Mariners’ manager in 2008 was John McLaren, who had taken over when Mike Hargrove abruptly quit at midseason the previous season. You’ll remember 2008 as the golden year in which the Mariners traded for Erik Bedard, signed Carlos Silva, and thought they were poised for a run at the division title. Instead, they got this classic McLaren rant, which tells you all you need to know about how the year went.
Now McLaren is the Nationals’ bench coach for Riggleman — who replaced McLaren as Mariners’ manager on June 19, 2008 when Mac was fired (by interim general manager Lee Pelekoudas, who had replaced the fired Bill Bavasi earlier in the season).
Riggleman finished that gloomy, 101-loss season as Mariners manager but wasn’t considered by new GM Jack Zduriencik for the full-time position that went to Don Wakamatsu.
Instead, he landed a job as the bench coach in Washington for Manny Acta, who was fired in July. of 2009. Riggleman once again took over as the interim manager, but this time he got the job permanently to start the 2010 season. And he had no qualms about hiring McLaren as his top aide in a unique role reversal. I visited the Nationals in spring training of 2010 and wrote this column about the Riggleman-McLaren alliance. McLaren, of course, had a long stint in Seattle as Lou Piniella’s bench coach and was a part of the great run of 1995 and the 116 wins of 2001.
I’m happy for both Riggleman and McLaren that they seem to have found new life with the Nationals, who could be on the verge of a renaissance — particularly if Strasburg comes back strong from Tommy John surgery, with budding superstar Harper on the way fast.
Who knows, maybe the Mariners will see them in the World Series one day.