Here’s hoping M’s won’t suffer another summer surprise

June 22, 2014 

Two spirit-affirming events occurred Saturday.

The Seattle Mariners won a deadlocked baseball game, against a quality opponent, by scoring in the top of the ninth. Ninth-inning road rallies are a rarity, and the Mariners pulled off two of them within 18 hours. Impressive.

Meanwhile, the planet reached its maximum axial tilt toward the sun for 2014, officially marking the beginning of summer.

The Mariners’ victory was not associated with the summer solstice, and yet there’s something about the changing of the season that pertains to baseball. Summer’s arrival means it’s not too early to check the standings first thing in the morning and, thus, not too early to invest in the daily grind of a playoff race.

When the Mariners broke camp in March, I was hopeful manager Lloyd McClendon’s team could make baseball more interesting than it was with Eric Wedge’s teams, and John McLaren’s teams, and Mike Hargrove’s teams. A division title was unrealistic — it still is — but there were two wild-card berths up for grabs, and could the Mariners remain in contention for one of them through the spring?

Mission accomplished. Summer is here, and the Mariners are 39-36. The defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox will visit Seattle for a three-game series beginning Monday. Safeco Field figures to be full of fans, and though many of them will be cheering for the visitors, occupied seats — even those occupied by the grating minions of Red Sox Nation — always are preferable to the alternative.

If you get the sense we’re entering into uncharted territory, it’s because, well, we’re entering into uncharted territory. Since 2004, only two Seattle teams have taken a winning record into summer. Surprises soon awaited each of them.

On June 21, 2007, under Hargrove, the Mariners were 37-32, seven games behind the first-place Los Angeles Angels in the AL West but only three behind Detroit in the wild-card race. The Mariners could rake: Every position player finished with at least 60 RBI, and four of them (Richie Sexson, Adrian Beltre, Raul Ibañez and Jose Guillen) hit more than 20 homers.

But the pitching rotation was a mess. (Definition of a mess: when Horacio Ramirez, with a 7.16 ERA, is your fifth starter.) Internal issues also lurked behind the scenes, a diplomatic way of describing a clubhouse culture that was close to poisonous. (Definition of a poisoned clubhouse: when the manager of a contending team, on a six-game winning streak, abruptly quits on June 30.)

The 2011 season found the Mariners at 37-36 on the first day of summer, but the lineup card Wedge submitted for victory No. 37 should have been evidence of impending dog days. It had third baseman Adam Kennedy as the No. 3 hitter (he finished the season hitting .234) as well as left fielder Carlos Peguero (.196) and backup catcher Chris Gimenez (.203).

Two weeks after beginning the summer with a winning record, the Mariners took a wrong turn into the cul de sac from hell. They dropped a 2-0 decision at Oakland, then lost four more road games against the Angels, got swept at home by the Rangers, and lost eight more times on an East Coast trip.

The 17-game losing streak redefined every standard of futility for the Mariners, who ended up 67-95. They won fewer games during the summer and early fall (30) than they did during the spring (37).

As for the 2014 Mariners, they aren’t immune to a similar summer that devolves into bummer. Over the past two weeks, they’ve wasted a pair of stellar starts by ace Felix Hernandez, lost five of eight on a homestand they started on a surge of momentum, and managed, somehow, to appear more listless with a bat in their hands than the historically listless San Diego Padres.

But then they got to Kansas City, where summer is serious and the 90-degree temperature at game time was almost as hot as the surging Royals, and the Mariners are in position for a sweep.

The sweltering conditions Saturday apparently agreed with starter Chris Young, who grew up in Dallas.

“It’s fun,” Young said of the climate. “It reminded me a little bit of being a kid again.”

Summer, come to think about it, reminds us all about being kids again: A slow day, no school tomorrow, how about a Stratomatic tournament? At night, the air conditioner would whir along with the voice calling a ballgame on the radio.

Two outs, eighth inning, runners on first and third, and as I closed my eyes, miles and miles away, I imagined the wind off San Francisco Bay blowing hot dog wrappers around Candlestick Park, and bleacher fans standing for the seventh-inning stretch in St. Louis, and some crazy commotion in Houston, where baseball was being played indoors, the craziest notion of all.

Summer is here. It arrived Saturday, as the Mariners were continuing their roller-coaster trek in the playoff race, reminding us how easy — and how necessary — it is to be a kid again.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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