The Mariners are fighting to be more than just average

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Dee Gordon crooked his finger, raised his eyebrows and said, “Y’all wanna story?”

He started across the visitor’s clubhouse at Angel Stadium and with his baseball bat motioned to follow.

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“C’mon,” he said.

When average wasn’t good enough for the Seattle Mariners, who actually were a lot better than average but refused to believe it, they chose to be something other than average, because there is no glory in average. Given their options, then, they opted for less than average, which seemed a bit of a cop-out, right up until they won 13 of their first 15 games this season. And if Mariners management was not going to fall for 89 wins in 162 games, imagine the shrapnel when trying to wrap its head around 13 wins in 15 games. Maybe, had the Mariners simply gotten around to trading Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Leake, too, as were the rumors even into April, they’d have won 15 of 15. Or 16 of 15.

One day they’d show up with three guys from the grounds crew, a muralist from Bellevue, and a donkey in a straw hat and sweep three games in Arlington or something.

They arrived in Anaheim on Thursday something slightly different, which is how April can go. A scouting adage advises against evaluating players in April or September and the same might be said of entire teams, who can play over their heads for a few weeks but not six months. Except, apparently, for the 2018 Seattle Mariners, who outperformed about every statistic but winning percentage, and so what many viewed as organizational self-immolation, the Mariners themselves viewed as realistic. At their former rate, and age, and cost, and any identifier really, the Mariners determined they’d only fall further behind the likes of the Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians. So, they got started on a rebuild without Robinson CanoJames PaxtonEdwin DíazJean SeguraAlex ColomeNelson Cruz.

And then right in the middle of their 13-2 April, they hosted for six games, hey, the Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians. So the team that stood in the sun for batting practice early Thursday evening, that had homered in each of its first 20 games, that had bullied opposing pitching staffs, that seemed to have grown up so quick, that was beginning to sense it could actually be competent, hadn’t won in a week.

Sure, if the first three weeks of the season hadn’t happened, the remodeling Mariners would happily have accepted a 14-8 record. They’d take relevance, even in April.

“But when we were 13-2 we wouldn’t have,” manager Scott Servais said with a grin.

These things happen. Justin VerlanderGerrit ColeTrevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco, those things happen too.

The Seattle Mariners snapped a six-game losing streak on Thursday, defeating the Los Angeles Angels, 11-10. (Getty Images)
The Seattle Mariners snapped a six-game losing streak on Thursday, defeating the Los Angeles Angels, 11-10. (Getty Images)

Gordon stopped halfway into a dark hallway. He met a perplexed expression with a smile and began to speak.

“I think we needed it,” he said and let his shoulders fall, the weight gone. “We weren’t playing great ball.”

The Mariners were not a great team at 13-2, he said, voicing the suspicions of about everyone. The flaws that were apparent, he said — the strikeouts, the defensive lapses, the bullpen, among others — were evident at 13-2. They also would not be addressed at 13-2, amid the happy high-fives and up-turned music and creative handshakes. No one’s ever searched his soul at 13-2. No one’s ever wondered what more he could do. This team right here, these Mariners who will need some breaks and maybe a few miracles to be anything like relevant, needed right now to grasp how 13-2 means nothing over the next, say, six games, all of which, turned out, they lost anyway. These Mariners aren’t all that young, not yet, but they are pretty new to each other, and some are new to the big-league order, and they do — or will have to — lean on the likes of Daniel Vogelbach and Domingo Santana and Mallex Smith and Ryon Healy and Omar Narvaez, at least on Gordon’s side of the ball.

And, well, if 13-2 hadn’t pointed that out, then 0-6 almost certainly did. That’s what had Gordon feeling so swell at the other end of a stretch when the homers had stopped, the runs had stopped, the hits had stopped. The winning had stopped.

The time had come to turn inward, see what was there for him, for all of them.

“Know what I’m sayin’?” Gordon said. “It’s not sustainable. It’s not even the runs. When you are hitting well as a young player, your deficiencies are overlooked. We really weren’t playing that well. We were just out-banging people. I think this is a reminder, at least for myself, that, ‘OK, the big leagues are hard. So what is it that I don’t do well to make sure that I get better?’ Now everybody has to take that look. What is it that I’m not doing that well and not helping us win that game today? So now we can focus on the development.”

Three weeks into the season, the Mariners led the American League in home runs, walks and strikeouts. (Getty Images)
Three weeks into the season, the Mariners led the American League in home runs, walks and strikeouts. (Getty Images)

The team nobody saw coming for 15 games and everybody saw going for six was, and could still be, the prototypical lineup for 2019. The offense roared through the three-true-outcome model, whether it intended to or not. Three weeks into the season, the Mariners led the American League in home runs, walks and strikeouts. And runs. No offense has led its league in those three categories for at least a decade. So Jay Bruce and Encarnacion and Mitch Haniger and Vogelbach had each hit at least five home runs, and three Mariners — Bruce, Santana and Smith — were top 10 in the AL in strikeouts, and five had drawn at least eight walks, and that’s a lot of true outcomes, which, Servais said, hadn’t exactly been planned.

“The power numbers, I think we’ve produced more than I thought we would at the plate,” he said. “Did I think there’d be this many strikeouts? It doesn’t shock me.”

But, he added, a plate appearance requires a decent amount of pitches to draw a walk, which means a lot of deep counts, and, “When you get to two strikes, sometimes you can end up with three strikes.”

The 2015 Chicago Cubs led the National League in strikeouts and walks, the last to do it. The 2010 Tampa Bay Rays did the same in the AL. The Mariners have 5 ½ months to sort that out, which was Dee Gordon’s point.

“You gotta get better,” he said before a four-hour, three-home run, 11-10 slog of a win against the Los Angeles Angels that solved the losing but maybe not the rest. “My dad told me one time Greg Maddux told him, and I don't know if he was specifically talking to him, but this is what he said: ‘Flash, the day that I don’t have to continue to work to get better is the day I need to quit.’ That’s a big part of it. We’ve got to get better. We’ve all got to get better. And if we don’t get better then guess what? We’re the same old team.”

And nothing’s worse than average.

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