ANAHEIM – The Seattle Mariners arrived Thursday to find there was little here for them.
Not in the season, not in the game, not even in the near-fight that kicked up in the sixth inning, when one of their September call-ups threw for a second time in three innings at Vladimir Guerrero's braided head, bringing both benches and bullpens to the mound.
But, it was what the Mariners had left – revenge for their catcher being hit in the back two innings before, irritation over Guerrero's ploddingly mirthful home run trot that immediately followed his first brush with Jorge Campillo's fastball, frustration perhaps that the Los Angeles Angels were an hour or so from clinching a tie for the American League West title.
Guerrero strode to the mound with his finger pointed squarely at Campillo, just some guy to Guerrero, in the same way the Mariners had become just some team to the Angels.
"That's very disturbing," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said after his 700th career win. "If it came from the bench, it's even more disturbing. … I don't know where that came from. If that guy's not suspended for a month, something's wrong."
The Mariners said it was unintentional. It didn't look it. It looked desperate.
Three weeks of unsteadiness, of four-inning starts and imprecise relief and the wrong guys at the wrong time had undone five months of reasonably capable baseball.
They'd pushed forward when everyone else decided they'd probably finish last again in the AL West, then fire their GM and their manager, then start over with another new organizational plan and a lot of new players who'd maybe fit in but probably not.
They'd looked ahead and put value on two series against the Angels inside of a month, when they'd have their chance to make something of themselves in a real live September division race. They'd played well enough, tried hard enough. Hell, the season owed them that.
Turned out, they weren't ready for it all.
Early Thursday evening, manager John McLaren pushed his cap back on his head. He'd taken over for Mike Hargrove 73 games before, back when the Mariners were, if not a threat, at least an annoyance to the Angels.
On Aug. 25, they were a game back. By Aug. 29, the Angels had swept them in three games in Seattle, in front of three of the largest turnouts of the season at Safeco Field. By Sept. 7, they were nine games back. Three days later, the deficit was 9½ games. When they'd finally started pitching and hitting again, they'd lost 17 times in 22 games, and the Angels stood on the verge of their third division title in four years.
Yeah, the Mariners arrived wishing it had gone different.
"I kind of do," McLaren said. "I wish it was closer, of course."
Instead of playing for October in these four games, they'd play to postpone the inevitable. They'd lived the unimpeded horror that grips the Boston Red Sox today, that possesses the New York Mets this morning, only without the margin for error. Or, in the Mets' case, the errors. The Angels had run off in the division. The New York Yankees had run off with the wild card, or maybe handed it to the Red Sox.
Leaving the Mariners with a nice little season, a decent place to start 2008, and a floating rumor that their GM and their manager would be fired anyway, replaced by Walt Jocketty and Tony La Russa of the St. Louis Cardinals. Jocketty is under contract for next season, but contracts can be bought out, and no sense allowing the niggling details wreck an otherwise sexy story. And yet, no one from the Mariners hierarchy has bothered to deny such a plan exists, leaving GM Bill Bavasi and McLaren to lean away from the prattle.
Bavasi's contract expires after the season. McLaren is under contract for next season, but not necessarily as the manager. These were not issues at the end of August.
What happened, ultimately, was that the most suspect part of the Mariners – their starting pitching – gave out, dragging the bullpen with it. Ace-to-be Felix Hernandez wasn't quite the same after his elbow scare, Jarrod Washburn has one win since the All-Star break, Weaver can't get his ERA out of the 6's, and Horacio Ramirez has not been the answer at the back end.
So, when the losing came, it came fast and relentless, pulling hard at what they'd made of themselves for five months.
"It goes from frustrating to just mad to, for me, it got to a point it was embarrassing," Washburn said.
They'd rather not believe there was one week, one game, one moment that nudged them from their course. But, given the biggest three days of their season at the end of August, standing across the diamond from the Angels, the Mariners collapsed. John Lackey shut them out on a Monday night. Twenty-four hours later, Jeff Weaver led, 5-0, and then the Mariners lost, 10-6.
"It seems like that's when the bad streak really hit us in the face," McLaren said.
They've been dabbing at the blood ever since.
The Angels beat them, 9-5, Thursday night. By the end, McLaren and Campillo had been ejected and Ichiro Suzuki and Jose Guillen had snappish conversations with fans near their dugout following strikeouts. They had lost for the 12th time in 16 games to the Angels. It was the team they had to beat. It was the series that should have been important.