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September 28, 2014 at 6:01 PM

Mariners 4, Angels 1 — The sun sets on Seattle’s season

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The grumbling started in the middle of fourth inning at Safeco Field. On the electronic scoreboard above the Mariners bullpen, the score changed from a 2-0 A’s lead in Texas to 4-0. Boos and groans could be heard from several of the 40, 823 fans in attendance, who saw the updated score.

Hope was fading.

At  2:46 p.m. with Robinson Cano at the plate in the bottom of the fifth inning, the Mariners postseason dream had flat-lined, but not from their own doing.

A’s pitcher Sonny Gray closed out a complete game 4-0 shutout over the Rangers in Arlington. With the Oakland win, Seattle was mathematically eliminated.

In the Mariners’ dugout, manager Lloyd McClendon shook hands with his players, thanking them for their effort in a magically unexpected season.

A few minutes later the scoreboard changed for good. The fans knew it and rose in appreciation with a standing ovation.

“It was one of my proudest moments,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “I think it said a lot about our fans.”

Of course, there was still a game left to play, a game that the Mariners would win 4-1, getting just enough offense to go with good starting pitching and solid bullpen work – the recipe for their success all season. They finished 87-65 – an improvement of 16 wins from 2013 and the most since 2007. But they were still a game away from forcing a play-in game with the A’s for the wild card spot.

One game.

In a moment, any number of close or frustrating losses could be recalled that might have chanced the Mariners’ fortunes.

“You can always say could’ve, would’ve, should’ve,” McClendon said. “But we probably should’ve lost a few also. It just was not in the cards for us. I think this was a tremendous step forward for this club.”

After being officially eliminated, Sunday became a celebration of what this team had accomplished and where it is going.

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The next and most important standing ovation came for starting pitcher Felix Hernandez minutes later. For five innings, he gave a glimpse of just what he would pitch like in a postseason game.

In the biggest start of his career, Hernandez dominated the Angels for the first five innings, allowing just one hit – a first-inning, broken bat, bloop single to Albert Pujols – and striking out seven batters. He wore a stone-faced look of pure concentration from the moment the Mariners won on Saturday night.

“You saw my face when I was pitching today,” Hernandez said. “This was it. This was my game.”

The A’s took his game from him. But that didn’t matter. He wanted to keep pitching – as always.

Even with the A’s clinching the title, Hernandez jogged out to the mound to start the sixth inning. But it was clear that his day and season would be over soon.

“I said I want to face one batter and strike him out,” Hernandez said.

He didn’t get the strikeout. Instead C.J. Cron to grounded out to short and that was it. McClendon sauntered from the dugout and the crowd rose with each step.

On the mound, Hernandez hugged his teammates and saved the longest hug for McClendon, tears were forming at the corners of his eyes. Though he denied it.

“Kind of,” he said. “They were starting too.”

The Safeco Field crowd roared in appreciation. Hernandez removed his cap and lifted it high above his head in acknowledgement. It wasn’t the playoffs, but it was special.

“That was awesome,” Hernandez said. “I just have to say thanks to the fans for all their support all year. I love being here. I love the fans.”

With the performance, Hernandez improved to 15-6 on the season, while winning the American League ERA crown at 2.14, just points ahead of Chris Sale at 2.17. It was the second time in his career to win the honor.  He is the leading candidate to win the AL Cy Young award.

Later in the inning, Brad Miller trotted onto the field to replace Robinson Cano with one out. The crowd again stood and applauded.

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Cano finished the season, batting a team-high .314 batting average to go with 37 doubles, 14 homers, 82 RBI and an .836 OPS. But his contributions extended beyond the field. His presence in a clubhouse full of inexperienced players was immense.

When he signed with the Mariners, questions about his leadership ability arose from New York.  Cano answered those critics.

“It was a great experience,” Cano said of his first year. “From the beginning of the year, we fought to the end. A lot of people doubted that we would be here. It’s sad that we have to go home.”

Before the season, McClendon asked his two stars to buy into his message and philosophy and be the leaders everyone expected and more.

They did. The standing ovations and exits were McClendon’s way of thanking them.

“I just thought that our fans should have an opportunity to thank them for the tremendous years the both of them have had,” McClendon said. “I thought our fans were just tremendous in that respect. Both of those guys grinded it out all year. They’re big time players and I thought they deserved it.”

The Mariners got their four runs on two RBI doubles from Michael Saunders and a two-run single from Mike Zunino. The bullpen, which had been stellar all season, gave up a throwaway run late. But when Danny Farquhar got Grant Green to ground out to first to end the game, it solidified a 3.17 team ERA for the season, breaking the club record set in 2001.

The season was over. But instead of tears, there were t-shirts as players tossed them to the fans in attendance.’

“Coming in as a team that had no expectations whatsoever from the outside, we knew we had a good ball club,” Saunders said. “We proved it to everybody. We have to take the positives from the season. It’s disappointing not making the playoffs. But playing to 162 and having 162 mean something says a lot about this ball club.”

 

 

 

 

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