Some games are a microcosm of the season.
Take the Mariners’ 4-1 defeat Sunday to the Oakland A’s, who showed a quiet Safeco Field crowd why they are the best team in baseball.
Slugger Brandon Moss launched a moon-shot homer to right and shortstop Nick Punto slapped a solo shot just inside the left field foul pole. Meanwhile, starting pitcher Sonny Gray scattered six hits, allowed one unearned run and improved his record to 10-3 — it’s hard to believe he’s not going to the All-Star Game — before turning things over to reliever Sean Doolittle, among the six players who’ll represent the Athletics in Minneapolis.
“That’s a good team,’’ Mariners starter Chris Young said afterward, echoing the words of manager Lloyd McClendon. “There’s a reason they’re in first place.”
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And there’s a reason the Mariners aren’t, also evident Sunday. McClendon assembled a lineup that had Dustin Ackley and Endy Chavez (five home runs between them) at the outfielder corners, Logan Morrison (.229) at designated hitter and Justin Smoak (.205) at first base.
Corner outfielders, first base and DH are traditional sources of offensive production, and the Mariners are getting next to nothing from those positions. That they were able to win 51 times before the All-Star break is a testament to their solid starting staff and superior bullpen, but remaining playoff contenders will be a chore without an upgrade.
Smoak, for instance, has reached that point in his career where it’s foolish to expect his numbers to spike. His defense is fine, but first base is a better fit for good hitters who play adequate defense than bad hitters who play good defense.
Ackley, on the other hand, is looking like a lost cause both at the plate and in left field. The A’s had Andy Parrino on second base during the top of the fifth Sunday when the Craig Gentry hit a sharp single to left.
Ackley picked up the ball on the run and appeared primed to throw out Gentry, waved home by third base coach Mike Gallego. Ackley’s toss arrived well off the plate. What should have been an out — or at least a bang-bang play — turned into the game-winning run.
McClendon is returning home to Indiana for the All-Star break, and plans to watch the game Tuesday. (”I want to see my guys,” he said, referring to the Mariners’ All-Star quartet of Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager and Fernando Rodney.) But it won’t be a surprise if he has some long-distance phone conversations with general manager Jack Zduriencik, who is aggressively evaluating trade possibilities.
One name that makes sense for both buyers and sellers is Philadelphia Phillies’ outfielder Marlon Byrd, a right-handed power hitter with 18 home runs and a reasonable contract — $8-million a season — that runs through 2015.
Byrd turns 34 on Aug. 31, and while his best years are behind him, he’d give the Mariners some right-handed balance between the left-handed Cano and Seager.
Pay no attention to the no-trade clause in his contract that specifies Seattle among four destinations he’s allowed to veto. Byrd will be glad to leave the Phillies, who appear committed to rebuilding for the long term, for a chance to join a playoff-contending team in Seattle. He’ll also be glad to make some extra money by agreeing to waive the no-trade clause.
Acquiring Byrd wouldn’t be a comprehensive game-changer for an offense that failed to take advantage of a rally opportunity Sunday. (Runners at first and third, nobody out, Morrison, Smoak and Ackley due up. The ball never left the infield.)
But Byrd would patch a void in left, and that fixes something.
“We’ve played good baseball,” Young said. “But I still think our best baseball is ahead of us. There’s room for improvement and I think we can all get a little better and if we do, I feel like we’ll be where we want to be at the end of the season.”
There’s lots of room for improvement and, for that matter, room for help from an outside source.
If the proposition of the Mariners reaching the All-Star break with the second-best record among wild-card teams had been extended before the season, Zduriencik and McClendon would have been all over it. From 43-52 at the break last summer to 51-44 in 2014 surpassed expectations.
But there’s work to do be done, calls to be made, and at least one deal that can be sealed without costing the farm system one of its best two or three prospects.
Something tells me the team that scored one unearned run Sunday against the A’s will be different than the team whose playoff roster must be set by September 1.
It had better be, or else the playoffs won’t be on the horizon.