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August 31, 2012 at 9:07 AM

Important final month for Mariners begins now

When this road trip began last week, I wrote that the Mariners would know much more about what this final month would mean once they came off it. We already know what the 3-4 record on the trip has done to any playoff illusions some may have habored beforehand, with the Mariners now nine out (10 back in the loss column). Truth is, even a 5-2 record on the trip — which we’d discussed as a goal for the team to shoot for — would still have left Seattle the exact same seven games back it sat a week ago.
So, if anything, this trip taught us one valuable lesson for next year: that no matter how close a team might appear to be in the second wild-card race, the presence of so many other near -.500 squads in this competition makes it extremely tough to gain ground. And so, a gap of five games or more with a month to go and four teams ahead of you? Might as well be a gap of two-dozen games. The Mariners never had a chance to get in this race, aside from maybe pulling off a 15-or-18-game winning streak. They can’t wait until August to start playing some ball next year if they want to really be in a race, not just give the illusion of being in one.
Now that this has been settled, hopefully once and for all, let’s get back to some real goals for this team as we prepare to enter September tomorrow. This homestand is interesting because you have the Angels and A’s both playing for something — they are actually in the wild-card race — while the Red Sox, despite falling on hard times, still remain a step up from the competition faced by Seattle through much of the second half.
The Mariners did play the White Sox and Twins tough throughout much of the road trip, aside from the 10-0 shellacking they took two nights ago and that opener in Chicago, when they were down 7-2 in the ninth before staging a miraculous comeback. And the key to this final month will be maintaining that same, tough play on a consistent level, both individually and collectively.
We discussed earlier this month that the Mariners needed to avoid falling prey to the Dog Days of August and they indeed did that in the won-loss column. But now, as the competition gets tougher, it becomes more important for the M’s to hold it together for another 4 1/2 weeks when they will face better pitching and better hitting.
The Angels team coming in tonight has won seven of nine and appears to have turned things around from when these squads last played. But they are vulnerable as well, with a mound mismatch tomorrow between Felix Hernandez and Ervin Santana and a weak link tonight in Dan Haren starting the game. The Mariners took Haren down hard — as have most teams in the second half — a few weeks back in Anaheim. So, indeed, tonight’s game could very well decide who wins this series. It could also give us some insight as to how this final month could wind up going for the M’s. Will they seize opportunities in front of them like a real .500 team? Or, are they not quite at that .500 level just yet?
Remember, the Mariners could go 11 games under .500 the rest of the season and still finish at .500 in the second half. That’s why the final won-loss records won’t mean as much as what we see on the field now that the Mariners won’t be playing a Cleveland team that has dropped 14 of 15, or a Twins club beaten in 13 of their last 16. It might not be as easy to do all of their scoring in one or two innings and still emerge victorious.
It’s a funny change this year, since September is usually the month where the games can be tough to evaluate because of so many Class AAA callups infusing the ranks of opponents. But for the Mariners, playing some of the floundering, no-name lineups they have throughout this month has been just as bad. And this time, in September, many of the clubs they’ll play won’t want to risk giving too much playing time to untested prospects when there’s stuff actually at stake. They’ll be coming at the Mariners with their “A” games.
Just the way things have gone. It happens.
So, we’ll see. And hopefully, by season’s end, we’ll have a better gauge on what this team is and how many pieces will be needed this winter if the goal next year is a real wild-card race and not the illusion of one.
Photo Credit: AP

Let’s take a look at some individual numbers from the past trip:
Dustin Ackley — .243
Jesus Montero — .208
Brendan Ryan — .238
Kyle Seager — .292
Justin Smoak — .182
Nothing all that groundbrealking really jumps out at you, other than Kyle Seager’s strong numbers. Trayvon Robinson hit .320 and continues to stay in the picture for a roster spot next year, but he’s a long way from being an everyday guy just yet.
Yes, it helps that Brendan Ryan hit above .200, but that’s what he should have been doing all along. Dustin Ackley showed signs of righting his swing, notching that home run the other night to go with a double on the trip.
But there’s a reason the team came within a couple of umpire calls in the ninth yesterday of going just 2-5 on the trip. The offense, thoughout the trip, fell back into some bad habits of doing most of its scoring in one or two innings. It’s why the M’s lost the second game in Chicago, going up 3-0 in the first and then not scoring again until Seager’s solo homer with one strike to go in a two-run game in the ninth. Tough to win that way.
Yesterday, the M’s did the bulk of their scoring in an error-aided sixth inning in which they overcame a 2-1 deficit. Then, they did not add to the lead and almost wound up blowing the game. They did almost no scoring in the series opener, taking another 1-0 gem pitched by Hernandez.
Rely on that formula against better teams and the losses will start piling up, just as they did in Chicago. The Mariners have to not only play consistently tough throughout the games as they move forward, they have to execute more consistently throughout the games as well — not go into the ninth down 7-2 and hoping for miracles. Not hoping Hernandez can keep winning 1-0 decisions.
Hey, it’s no skin off my nose. Yes, the Mariners have compiled a nice 28-17 mark since the break and for some of you, that will be enough to call it a season and celebrate what you now have. After all, it’s better than losing 100 games. No arguments from me and if you want to declare the season a success, go right ahead.
I’ll wait until season’s end so that we know what we’ve got.
The pitching, as good as the numbers have been, also needs some further scrutiny outside of Hernandez.
Blake Beavan did a nice job of adjusting in-game yesterday and that’s why he didn’t get blown out early. Hisashi Iwakuma? A better team would have taken him down early in Minnesota. Jason Vargas gave up too many home runs again on this trip, just as he did earlier this season. Kevin Millwood is 0-3 with a 5.76 ERA in August and appears to be battling to make it through his final season with decent numbers intact.
The bullpen will be most interesting of all because of how young it is. This is the time of year when young relief arms, or those lacking full-season big league experience, tend to start running out of gas. We’ve seen Tom Wilhelmsen start to look more human of late and he was fortunate to get out of yesterday’s ninth — helped by a very generous strike three call for the second out of the inning.
This is all normal stuff. And why it’s going to be interesting to see how the Mariners hold up, both from a team perspective and an individual one. There are some very good storylines developing which will be worth following, not to mention whether Trayvon Robinson, Michael Saunders and Eric Thames can keep producing at the plate. Not to mention whether Franklin Gutierrez can stay healthy and produce.
The season isn’t over yet, even though August soon will be.
In fact, the fun stuff and the very important analytical stuff is about to begin. How important is it? Does it really matter if some of the August record was inflated against bad teams?
Not really. It really doesn’t matter how the Mariners get their wins. What matters is that the people making the decisions for the Mariners aren’t fooled by any of what they have seen or are going to see.
We’re just along for the ride. If we get fooled, it doesn’t hurt anybody. If they get fooled? They’ll pay for it big time down the road. Nobody wants to see another season wasted on non-contention just because somebody in charge got fooled.
These are important weeks ahead indeed.

Comments | Topics: Brendan Ryan, Dustin Ackley, Hisashi Iwakuma


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