Ninth-inning explosion shows you can’t count out M’s

June 9, 2014 

If the Seattle Mariners end up qualifying for the playoffs — and there’s no reason to believe they can’t — Sunday will be recalled as the game that defined their season.

Beating the league’s worst team, on a day Felix Hernandez struck out 15 but was left with a no-decision, isn’t proof the Mariners have crossed the threshold from middling plodders to serious contenders. But imagine the alternative. Imagine the headlines you didn’t see.

Punchless Mariners waste 15K gem

Rays beat M’s in 22 innings, 1-0

Hernandez makes demand: ‘Put me in batting order’

Angry skipper shatters clubhouse TV with bat

OK, so maybe I’m exaggerating the fallout Sunday if the Mariners had lost. Hernandez never has made an issue of the tepid run support he often gets, and manager Lloyd McClendon has seen too many games during his 34-year career in professional baseball to go bonkers after losing one of them June 8.

But we’ll never know, because the Mariners didn’t lose June 8.

Instead, they put together a five-run rally during a ninth inning that began with Rays reliever Grant Balfour striking out Dustin Ackley and Cole Gillespie, setting up an inherently unfair confrontation between Balfour and Brad Miller.

Miller wasted no time putting himself in an 0-2 count, and you had a feeling — more than a feeling; actually, something like a deep conviction — what would happen on the next pitch.

Miller, who had one hit and four strikeouts in the series, either would swing and miss on a ball well out of the strike zone, or he wouldn’t swing and instead take a ball thrown over the heart of the plate.

Instead, Miller took a swing and connected for his first triple since Sept. 2, back when he was a rookie who appeared to be Seattle’s shortstop of the future instead of a project needing tutorial help in Tacoma.

Miller then scored on Endy Chavez’s RBI single, and Chavez scored behind Willie Bloomquist on James Jones’ triple, and Jones and Robinson Cano scored on Kyle Seager’s double.

When the dust was cleared from the plate, the 2014 Mariners were well on their way to winning a game any Mariners club of the past 10 years would have lost.

“A great game” was how McClendon summed up the 5-0 victory, for the most part a pitchers’ duel between Hernandez and the Rays’ Chris Archer. “That’s what I call a game for the purists, the people who enjoy the game of baseball.”

It also was a game for the dreamers, the people who imagine a crazy scenario and enjoy watching it fulfilled.

Scoring five ninth-inning runs with two outs and nobody on and a .170 hitter down 0-2 to a reliable closer?

That sort of thing only happens to enchanted teams with players who believe they are capable of creating magic and, thus, believe in magic.

Don Zimmer’s death last week brings to mind another team that believed in magic: the 1989 Chicago Cubs. “The Boys of Zimmer” — a manager for four teams over three decades, Zimmer won his only manager of the year award that season — weren’t supposed to compete for a divisional title, much less earn one.

But Zimmer cobbled together lineups mixing such proven stars as Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandberg with kids and journeymen playing here, there and everywhere.

Among that group was an occasional outfielder/infielder/catcher named Lloyd McClendon, baseball’s version of the sixth man in basketball.

In one game, the ’89 Cubs beat the Houston Astros, 10-9, after trailing, 9-0, midway through. McClendon’s contribution to the comeback? Three hits, three RBIs.

A surprising spring became a magical summer, and though fall fell as it always falls on the North Side of Chicago — we’re talking about the Cubs, after all — “The Boys of Zimmer” won 93 times during a season in which they were expected to lose 93 times.

McClendon’s Mariners will be hard-pressed to win 93 games in a division dominated by the league’s best team, the Oakland Athletics. But don’t underestimate the potential of magic in the equation.

If the Mariners can score five runs with two outs and nobody on and Miller facing an 0-2 count against a reliever determined to strike out the side, they can do anything.

“We had a little luck,” McClendon said, “and we’ll take a little luck anytime we can get it.”

A little luck in one game could be a precursor to a lot of luck down the road.

Luck has a way of revisiting those who don’t give in after the second out of the ninth.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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