Sports

September is more fun when baseball matters

September can be a showcase for the best baseball has to offer, but it’s not for everybody. Teams must earn the roller-coaster ride that can be traumatizing one day and exhilarating the next.

Aside from second baseman Robinson Cano, center fielder Austin Jackson and closer Fernando Rodney, the Mariners are unfamiliar with the succession of vertical loops that await them.

Fans are similarly foreign to the September experience. It has been 14 years since the 2000 Mariners competed in Seattle’s last successful pennant race (the 2001 race was more like a victory lap), and seven years since the 2007 Mariners began the final month in the middle of the playoff mix.

How sudden did things change in 2007? This sudden: On the morning of Sept. 1, the Mariners trailed the Angels by 6.5 games but were only one game behind the Yankees for the lone wild-card berth. Ten days later, a 2-8 skid found the Mariners 9.5 games out of first and 6.5 games out of the wild card.

The ’07 Mariners ended up with a 15-14 record for September, but the victories were hollow. The team won only when it had nothing left to lose.

September always has posed a strange dichotomy between the Haves and the Have-nots. If the Mariners are still contending through the third weekend of the month, when they travel to Houston for a weekend series, it will be tempting to consider the Astros as almost fortunate: Eliminated eons ago, they’re liberated from the relentless grind of participating in better-win-or-else-it’s-gonna-be-a-

sleepless-night games.

One of the most remarkable of baseball records is the 26-game winning steak put together by the 1916 New York Giants. They beat Brooklyn on Sept. 7, and didn’t lose again until dropping the second game of a doubleheader on Sept. 30.

The Giants went on a rampage for the ages, but because they began September with a 56-58 record, the rampage rewarded them with nothing more than fourth place.

All the Giants did was play. No worries, no pressure. Such an easy life, huh?

Not really. Few places are more desolate than the clubhouse containing a team that’s out of contention in September, and few places are more electric than the clubhouse of a team in the thick of a race.

Players arrive an hour or two earlier than they typically might during the dog days because — as the song goes — what good is sitting alone in your room? When it comes to edgy pro athletes disinclined to relax on the couch six hours before a first pitch, there’s power in numbers.

Beyond the clubhouse, there’s a distinct feel to September baseball. The shadows on the field are longer. The sun sets to a color closer to orange than yellow.

During night games, weeknight ballparks sound different. Fans are less festive, but more tuned in. The kids are back in school; September is for the adults to double-down on the emotional investment that coaxed them into following baseball in the first place.

Even the rules change. Rosters are limited to 25 players for the regular season and playoffs, but can be expanded to 40 players in September. Promoting top minor league prospects helps generate some interest for fans of lost-cause teams, but general managers should be wary of gaudy statistics produced by a call-up: Hitters with no obvious big-league potential often dominate pitchers with no obvious big-league potential, and vice versa.

The allure of September baseball is rooted in a schedule that puts contending teams in head-to-head matchups.

The Mariners will begin the month with an afternoon game Monday against the Athletics at Oakland, and conclude the month with a Sunday matinee against the Angels at Safeco Field.

Among the games sandwiched in between are five with the A’s, six with the Angels and four, at the end of the season’s last trip, with the Toronto Blue Jays. It’s a brutal stretch alleviated by just one off day, an off day reminding us that no matter how much September baseball resembles a life-and-death drama, it’s still just a game.

The off day is on Sept. 11.

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