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June 22, 2011 at 10:24 AM

Painful as last night’s loss was, the Mariners can’t allow it to become a watershed moment

Well, it took quite a while. In fact, it took 63 games and two months, 10 days for things to “even out” for the Mariners when it came to overcoming fanstastic odds to win or lose a game. Back on April 11, the Mariners were down 7-1 in the eighth inning and rallied to beat the Toronto Blue Jays 8-7.
Last night, they led 5-1 in the ninth, but the Washington Nationals beat them 6-5.
Yeah, it hurts. But to overuse a cliche yet again, that’s baseball.
The M’s are now even. Finally. No, those losses in Baltimore and Cleveland back in mid-May don’t count. Teams blow leads of one or two runs in the ninth all the time. Sometimes, they even blow three-run leads. But a four-run lead? That’s once per season stuff.
Especially given how well Doug Fister had pitched up to that point. The Nats barely showed a pulse all game.
So, you swallow this bitter pill and move on if you’re the M’s. They scored five runs. That’s a plus. They got great results from Fister yet again. That’s huge. There comes a point in the majors where you stop worrying about whether a guy is getting all of his outs via grounders, or strikeouts, or flyballs or whatever and you just take what he gives you with a smile.
He’s a major league pitcher getting major league hitters out. Will he revert to something less at some point? Perhaps. And perhaps then, he’ll make some adjustments. Nobody’s touting him as a staff ace. But right now, he’s giving you ace-like innings totals and run allowances. And even without the strikeouts, he’s become a bonafide No. 3 starter. A guy who eats innings and gets batters to mis-hit the ball — at home and on the road.
And that’s one reason why the M’s can’t allow last night to become a watershed moment for where things all went wrong.
Nothing really went wrong last night. The Nats got lucky in a few ninth-inning at-bats and saved their biggest hit or two for when there were a bunch of guys on base.
That’s it.
Photo Credit: AP

One of the first things I thought about when I saw David Pauley give up the three-run homer that ended it was the 1989 Montreal Expos. Then, the next thing I thought about was the 2007 Seattle Mariners.
Both completely different teams, linked only by the fact one of them traded Randy Johnson and the other franchise benefitted from it.
But the Expos of 1989, which I followed intently back in those days since they played in my hometown, had traded Johnson and two others for Mark Langston in May of that year and were in first place just after the all-star break.
They had a July 22 game that year in which they were down 5-1 in the ninth to the Reds, but rallied in the bottom of the inning for a 6-5 win. We were all convinced after that one that destiny was finally on their side. One thing folks don’t remember about the Expos is that they never won a division title outright in their history. Well, this was going to be their year.
And no, that July 22 game is not what I was thinking about last night.
It was the game of Aug. 3 of that year. The Expos had gone into Three Rivers Stadium against the Pirates and taken the first three games of a four-game set against a Pittsburgh team that had tormented them for a decade. They were three games up on the second-place Pirates and could move to four by doing something they never had — sweeping a four-game series in Pittsburgh. They had ace Dennis Martinez on the mound and he pitched brilliantly. But Montreal couldn’t score. The game went scoreless into the 12th. The Expos blew a leadoff walk situation in the 12th because they fouled out on a bunt attempt. Had the bunt gotten down, the run would have scored because of an ensuing single.
Instead, they stranded their 12th runner on base that frame and then, after two quick outs to start the bottom of the inning, they gave up a hit, a steal and lost on a single.
And they lost the next night. And the night after. And so on and so on.
Seven consecutive losses later, they were in second place and three games out.
They’d gone into Pittsburgh that final game 19 games above .500. They lost 11 of 14 after that Pirates game and then — pretty much done in September — had two more losing streaks of five games that final month and ended the season at .500 and in fourth place.
Remember, this was a team that felt in May it was good enough to make the Langston trade to contend. That Pittsburgh game became a watershed moment.
Fast forward 18 years to 2007 and a Mariners team that surprised plenty of us by contending deep into August. The Mariners were only a game out of first place, trailing the Angels, when they lost the final of a series in Texas and split with the Rangers to fall two back.
But Seattle still held the wild-card lead and the Angels were in town for three games. The M’s got blown out in the opener to fall three back in the division. But the second game saw them grab a 5-0 lead off Ervin Santana in the first inning. Remember, win this game and the M’s would be two back with Felix Hernandez pitching the next day and a shot at closing the gap to one.
Until, that is, Jeff Weaver took over. Spotted the 5-0 lead, Weaver gave a run back in the third, two more in the fourth and the tying runs in the fifth before being pulled one out into that inning.
The M’s didn’t score again until the seventh and were down 6-5 at that point. Then, tied in the eighth, a bunch of relievers everyone thought would be here for years to come gave up four runs and lost 10-6.
That was the fourth loss in a row by the M’s. I mean, a 5-0 lead in the first inning at home and you blow it? You kidding me? Several of us suspected at that point that those Mariners wouldn’t recover. And they did not. Hernandez was blown out the next day. The M’s went on to lose 15 of 17 — an unprecedented fall for a team leading the wild-card race that late in a season.
The wild-card gave them some false hope for a while, even while they went on to lose nine in a row during and after the Angels game collapse. Hernandez finally ended the streak with a great win at Yankee Stadium in early September, with the M’s still only a couple out in the wild card (the great thing about wild-cards are that they give mediocre teams and their fans hope where there really should be none. The 1989 Expos could have used that format.) But the M’s were destroyed the next two games and kept on losing.
You can pick, I suppose, a bunch of watershed moments from that series of defeats. But for me, that blown 5-0 lead is where it all fell apart. Instead of ending a losing streak at three games, the M’s allowed it to continue on and on. They had played pretty decent baseball up to the first two games of that Angels series, but never did so again.
All of the flaws the M’s had overcome prior were now seeping through. The Rick White blown save, walkoff walk defeat in Cleveland followed soon after the Angels game. It was all over but the pulling out of hair.
And so, we come to this year’s squad.
The M’s, for a while last night, looked like they’d begin today tied for first place. But the Rangers rallied late to beat Houston and the M’s, well, we know what happened to them.
So, now, two games behind again, where do the M’s go from here?
They’ve played pretty good baseball up to this point, including for eight innings last night. The key now will be to continue doing that.
Unlike the 1989 Expos and 2007 Mariners, these guys have a lot more time. The collapse last night didn’t happen in August. But they don’t have unlimited time to survive a tailspin.
Remember, if these M’s don’t put this game behind them and wind up going on to lose, say, six in a row or eight of 10, they might wind up “sellers” at the trade deadline and not buyers. So, make no mistake, how they rebound from this tough defeat could be telling in where the season goes from here.
A lot of people out there don’t believe in watershed moments. They feel they are a media creation to fit a storyline. I’ll agree that, in some cases, they are. That what we define as “watershed moments” are really what others term as “regression” to what a team is supposed to be.
But not always. Life isn’t that simple. There are complexities involved. I believe strongly that baseball is a game played by humans with human emotions who are prone to swings in momentum. And that, after some very tough losses that can gnaw at human beings, those players don’t always go out and give it their best — no matter how much they insist otherwise in post-game interviews. The momentum swings against them, especially when that team has flaws and has been seen to be overdelivering on good performances.
And like those 1989 Expos and 2007 Mariners, this Seattle team has its share of flaws. It has an offense that sputters like a lone engine conking out on an airplane 30,000 in the sky. An offense that, at its worst, can set the conditions for a prolonged period of losing. So, these M’s are not out of the woods. They lack the pure talent to simply take the field and reel off six wins in a row just by putting on their uniforms. They have to scratch and claw for each victory. And that’s tough to do if your frame of mind is still dwelling on last night’s win that got away.
So, this is a dangerous time for these M’s.
Anything less than their best these next few games and last night’s lone defeat could amplify. Especially with the Rangers playing a string of games now against less-than-stellar opposition.
You don’t want the Rangers to wake up, smell blood, and take off to a five-game division lead the next couple of weeks. If the M’s go into late July down five or six games, you can bank on them being sellers.
So, it may not be August or September. But it’s not April for the M’s anymore either.
Last night was one loss. One agonizing loss. And it will be critical for the M’s to put it behind them tonight — not three days from now — so that their inspired run of the past two months can continue. So that this one, brutal defeat does not become a watershed moment.



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