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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

May 5, 2008 at 6:16 AM

Crunch time

Good thing the Mariners aren’t panicking yet. Panic can have two outcomes: generating a sense of urgency that heightens play, or freezing one’s knees in-place and preventing any type of adequate response to a situation. No, it isn’t panic time yet. Lose this four-game series against the Texas Rangers and you’d better believe it will be panic time.
The Mariners are already 6 1/2 games behind the streaking Los Angeles Angels and 5 1/2 back of the surprising Oakland Athletics. If it was only Oakland that the M’s had to catch, the need for worry would be less. The A’s still look primed for a dropoff, given their unsteady offense. But the Angels? That gap is already getting far too big after only five weeks of the season.
To answer your questions, no, it’s no longer early. The Mariners were able to almost make up an eight-game deficit on the Angels last summer. Almost, but not quite. And you know what they say about close. Counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Not baseball.
Thing is, there were reasons the M’s almost caught up last summer. Ervin Santana was pitching horribly and provided an automatic loss every five days. Not any more. Also, this Angels rotation stands to get better, not worse, with the addition of John Lackey. Not saying they can’t be taken. But if this gap is allowed to grow any bigger, the task of catching the Angels becomes monumental. A look at shows the M’s already in single digits percentage-wise when it comes to their odds of making the playoffs. Now, obviously, a few wins by the M’s and a few losses by the Angels will knock those numbers down significantly and Seattle will be back in business.
That’s the beauty of having so much time left in a season. Problem is, let the gap grow to eight games, or nine, and all that those few games picked up by winning three while the Angels lose three would mean is a deficit of five or six in the standings. Then, the Angels win one, the M’s lose one and you’re back to seven.
The gap, like a credit card balance allowed to accumulate interest, starts working against teams. It negates the impact of all the head-to-head matchups between division rivals. Seattle has 13 games left against the Angels. Those are games in which the M’s can hope to make significant gains on their AL West foe. That won’t matter as much, though, once the M’s get to a point where the gap with the Angels starts to hover indefinitely between 6 and 8 games.
Out of those 13 games, the M’s, now 3-3 versus the Angels, would be fortunate to go 8-5. That picks up three important games in the standings and gives Seattle an 11-8 record against a squad that owned them 13-6 last season. But those three games would only whittle the gap with the Angels down to between 3 and 5 under present circumstances. Come September, that’s too much.
Much better to keep the early gap at something manageable. More like three to five games. That way, if you win the head-to-head matchups, it keeps you within striking distance. You don’t have to buy into this. As I mentioned, the M’s picked up five or six games on the Angels in about two weeks last summer when one team streaked and the other folded for a time. It could happen again. Of course it could. But I don’t like the odds of it happening any time soon. Historically, forgetting about last year’s Phillies, the odds are always stacked against a team that trails by six or more once June arrives.
It’s just tough to make up that many games. On one team. Right now, the M’s are facing that kind of a gap against both the Angels and A’s. It’s time for Seattle to get rolling. The M’s are now tied with Texas for the distinction of being the worst club in the American League. I can’t tell you how many longtime baseball media types, scorekeepers and officials came up to me in New York truly stunned at what the M’s have allowed themselves to become. Many of them picked Seattle to finish first based on the quality of the team’s pitching and cannot understand how the team is doing this poorly. Even with the offense and some defensive shortcomings. An offense has to be truly awful to offset pitching this good.
Nobody expected the M’s to set offensive records. But few expected them to drop off the planet like they have. And anyone claiming that they did “predict” that it would be this bad, based on simulations and such, will have to show me how those same simulations predicted the Cleveland Indians would do so far this year. Or the Detroit Tigers. If anyone can find me a simulation that had the Tigers and Indians fighting it out for the AL Central basement five weeks into the season, I’d love to see it. Otherwise, the system is an approximation — and that’s it.
Yes, the M’s were going to have offensive struggles. We all knew that. I did think the team could stay reasonably close to league average and maybe even approach last year’s production. I am disappointed in the performances of a number of players I felt would do better offensively than they have. But as a group, this offense has been catastrophic. Most projections I’ve seen from folks who did not think the M’s would would make the playoffs this year still had them as a .500 team. I believed that, at the very worst, they would be a .500 team. A .500 team right now would trail the Angels by 3 1/2 games.
Not great. But far more manageable than 6 1/2 games. No matter what anyone’s offensive projections for this team were, the team has underperformed them. It’s time for the M’s to get cracking on their 2008 season. Or else, it’s going to be an awfully long, hot summer.
It’s not time to panic yet. But time is definitely of the essence here. This series, as I mentioned yesteday, could very well set the course for the rest of the season.



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