ANAHEIM, Calif. – The previously and rampantly mediocre Seattle Mariners have won 58 games, nearly half of those by one run, well more than half of those without Robinson Cano, and there’s probably a very good reason for all of it.
“Nah,” Dee Gordon said. “Stay out of the way.”
The Mariners of two winning seasons since ’09, of zero postseasons since ’01, of the whole World Series-lessness of themselves, have up and made themselves relevant, made themselves mid-summer contenders, made themselves … what?
“Is what it is,” Nick Vincent, the reliever, said.
Which is, Year 3 of general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais, and Control the Zone methodology, and hit just enough and pitch just enough, and love your neighbor, and next man up, and Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger and Nelson Cruz and Dee Gordon and James Paxton, and have we left anything out?
“It’s get it to Eddie,” Vincent said.
Yes, yes, get it to Edwin Diaz. Somehow, some way, bloodied or exhausted or otherwise, get it to Eddie, whose 36 saves include 20 one-run saves (the major league record is 23), who went home to Naguabo, Puerto Rico, last winter, worked with former big-league pitcher Jose Santiago, and returned a more mature, more refined pitcher, which, in a season without a net, would be precisely what the Mariners would require. Get it to Eddie and his 98-mph fastball, his vanishing slider, his 14.8 strikeouts-per-nine, his 0.79 WHIP, his .152 batting average against.
“It makes me feel happy,” Diaz said, and whether winning precedes happiness or happiness precedes winning is somebody else’s debate, because the Mariners seem to have a pretty good handle on both. They are an imperfect team (all teams are imperfect, to varying degrees) playing to the far end of its capabilities (few teams do that) or good fortune (fewer still), or seemingly so, because hardly anybody wins 26 one-run games out of 37, and hardly anybody is 23 games above .500 while scoring 14 more runs than they’ve let in.
All of which got Gordon to thinking there should be a lot less thinking.
“Maybe all that,” Gordon said, having mentioned Wade LeBlanc being 5-0 and Marco Gonzales having won nine games and Segura hitting .330, among several other notable efforts, “is just enough to win baseball games.”
Delivered with a mischievous grin, his shrug was meant to be spiritedly sarcastic.
“We were supposed to be out of it after Cano got hit.”
He shrugged again.
“Some people said Mitch Haniger wasn’t going to keep it up this year.”
“They said after we played New York and Boston (10 mid-June games in which they lost seven) we would tank. We won the next eight.”
“We were supposed to be done after that. I mean, I don’t know what to tell you. Nobody sees us every day. You see us when we play your favorite team. That’s it.”
So the Mariners are part mystery, part high wire, all in. Five players – Felix Hernandez, Kyle Seager, Cruz, Cano and Vincent – remain from the start of 2016, Dipoto’s first opening day. Of those five, Hernandez is on the disabled list and attempting to revive the former ace within him, and Cano has another month to serve on his 80-game suspension. The Mariners are 36-18 without Cano, with Gordon back at his native second base, with Haniger batting third, with a knack for scoring exactly as many runs as are necessary, unless the knack is giving up one fewer than would be ruinous.
Theories abound, from Gordon’s enthusiasm and how that has spread through the clubhouse, to the production from the back end of the rotation, to a defense that is sturdier than the metrics suggest, to the Dipoto trades that finally added up to something, to Diaz’s emergence as a big-time closer, to the relentlessness/dumb luck of what you may call “sequencing,” or the serendipitous habit of scoring nine when they score eight and two when they score one. That way, the Mariners can rate near the middle of the American League pack in reputedly important things like scoring runs and preventing runs and still tear through two months of exceptional baseball.
And they have a pretty good idea of what you may think about the sustainability of that.
“Personally, we’re fine with that,” Vincent said. “We accept that and I’m cool with that. Everybody can doubt us all they want. We don’t care.”
Instead, Ichiro is in the clubhouse, teetering atop a foam roller that vibrates. He is wearing sunglasses. He looks cool. And Segura arrives to find nearly every one of his teammates wearing a “Send Segura” T-shirt with his face on it, because he should be an All-Star and instead must campaign for the last place on the AL roster, which he earned Wednesday night. At first he hesitates at wearing one of the T-shirts himself, because, he says, in a mild complaint, “I got the face.” He puts on a T-shirt with his face on it.
In the locker beside Segura’s, Gordon grants that maybe the numbers don’t all add up for the Mariners. This is not a concern for him. Instead, he leans close and gets semi-serious for a moment.
“If you really want to understand it,” he says, “under all the numbers, the analytics, what’s on paper, look at the way we celebrate each other.”
And, well, it’s as good of an explanation as any. Or, at least, no thinner than any. He says they’re having a good time, building a brotherhood, cheering for each other, even needling each other.
“Can’t nobody else,” he says.
How it adds up at the end, or doesn’t, can’t be of concern to any of them, he says. They try to figure it out today, leave it at that, then try again tomorrow. And maybe, all things considered, they could be – or should be – a .500 team, desperately mediocre again. But they’re not. And don’t plan to be.
“We’re just playing baseball,” he says. “And, yeah, we make sure we get it to Eddie.”