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August 27, 2009 at 10:20 AM

Wild card race for Mariners, other teams, means a lot of standing still

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Good time for a sweep by the Mariners, who had been finding new and creative ways to lose on their last road trip. But this sweep of the Oakland Athletics, capped last night, means the Mariners and RBI-man Jose Lopez are back to playing above .500 ball in August, checking in at 13-11. Not bad for a team that could have shriveled up and died the final two months. But no, the Mariners are playing winning, competitive baseball.
If not for a couple of blown leads in Detroit, the team could be 15-9 right now. But, baseball doesn’t work that way, unfortunately.
And even if it did, if teams were allowed to replace their biggest failures with do-overs every couple of months, the impact on the wild-card standings would be minimal. So, sit back, relax and enjoy the final 5 1/2 weeks of the season for the sheer joy of watching baseball and an entertaining team. Don’t bother dwelling on what could have been. That ship sailed back in late July. The focus now, for those running this team, is about what can be down the road. Keep up hope if you wish. After all, what’s life without hope?
But as you’re enjoying the final month of the season, try to take something away from the reality of what’s happened the past four weeks. It was four weeks ago tomorrow that Seattle traded Jarrod Washburn at the deadline, the team’s leadership realizing, inwardly, if not for public consumption, that the wild-card was but an impossible dream.
And we should take some lessons away from that. Why, you ask?

Because when we arrive at this point 11 months from now, perhaps watching a Mariners club trying to stay in playoff contention with the July 31 deadline looming, we’ll all need a gauge as to what constitutes serious contention and what is merely a fantasy espoused by those hoping 1995 can come around more than once every 20 or 30 years.
And it’s not only fans that should take a lesson from what we’ve learned so far in August.
Mariners players, too, should jot down some notes this morning, so that they can see where they have to position themselves by next summer in order to not force management’s hand to “sell” certain assets come deadline time.
On the morning of Aug. 1, the Mariners woke to find themselves 7 1/2 games behind in the wild-card race, with four teams in front of them.
This morning, the Mariners, playing winning baseball in August, coming off a sweep of the A’s and having seen the wild-card leading Red Sox lose six straight within the past month are exactly…in the same spot they were nearly a month ago. Trailing by 7 1/2 games.
OK, I’ll give them the fact there are now only three teams in front of them, the White Sox having dropped back. But there are also four fewer weeks of baseball left to play.
And that’s the lesson everyone, not just fans, should take out of this.
That the threshold for realistic contention is a lot more narrow than folks tend to assume. Also, that the number of teams in front of yours is sometimes more of a challenge than the games-behind that have to be made up. Better to be seven out with one team ahead of you than five back with four teams to leapfrog.
The reasons are simple. Remember them, please, so we don’t have to go through all of this again next year. Baseball writers, too, (not you, Larry Stone, you know what’s what) pay attention please.
Wild-card contenders tend to be good teams. Good teams aren’t usually prone to dramatic, sustained periods of losing. And even if one team is hit by a prolonged losing bout, the chances of the same affliction hitting three or four good teams simultaneously is almost nil.
We saw it when the Red Sox were losing those six straight games. The M’s made up some quick ground on them, but gained little in the wild-card hunt because Texas simply leapfrogged the Red Sox and briefly took over the wild-card lead. By the time the Rangers stumbled and the Red Sox leapfrogged them, the law of averages caught up with the Mariners and they lost a few games and still gained nothing in the standings.
And that’s why, when trying to gauge serious contention in a wild-card race, anything beyond four games out with more than one team ahead of you on July 31 means you’re pretty much done. That if you have a trade that begs to be made, like flipping two months of Washburn for future arms, then you have to seriously consider pulling the trigger.
It would be different in a division race, where, usually, you have just one team to catch and two at most. But the wild-card is a different animal.
Ask the Tampa Bay Rays. They were 4 1/2 games out with two teams to catch on Aug. 1. They’ve since gone three games over .500 and gained — 1/2 a game in the wild-card standings with the same two teams ahead of them.
The Mariners front office understands how these things work, even if they can’t be seen as waving any white flags. Why would they wave one? It’s bad for business. No fault there. But it didn’t stop the team from moving Washburn.
No, the Washburn deal did not constitute a “fire sale” or “selloff” of the team. But it was a “sell” move. No contender in its right mind trades its second-best starting pitcher, record-wise, for a potential back-end starter and a prospect. If you’re a contender, you trade a guy like Washburn for an impact piece that can make your team stronger. But again, that’s tough to do when it’s a starting pitcher you’re dealing. Most real contenders won’t touch their starting pitching under any circumstances, especially if, as in the Mariners case, the arms are what helped get them to where they were.
So, once again. let’s sit back and enjoy watching this team for its spirited, competitive play, something that will hopefully continue the final five-plus weeks. But let’s also not forget the lessons that have been taught by August. That a strong finishing kick will only take you so far in a wild-card race if you’re not right on the heels of the leader with two months to go. Because for all the “speed” images that the word “race” tends to conjure up. the wild-card journey in August and September can often mean a whole lot of standing still.



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