McGrath: Now is no time to get down on Mariners

Thanks to an open date on the Mariners schedule, Thursday provided a brief but timely respite from a playoff race responsible for headaches, heartburn and a general sense of restlessness.

The players probably needed a break, too.

Now it’s back to the long and grinding road: 17 consecutive games, including a Los Angeles-to-Houston-to-Toronto trip that will take the Mariners through three different time zones in 72 hours before they return home to face the first-place Angels on Sept. 26.

I’ve got a suspicion the words “jet lag” will be pronounced in the broadcast booth almost as often as “Yoervis Medina is really taking his time between pitches.” Deliberate? If Yoervis the Laborious works any part of that road finale in Toronto, the Mariners might not get back to Seattle until October.

But first things first. Before they embark on a trip arranged by MLB schedule-makers without apparent access to the North American map, the Mariners will face the Oakland A’s in a three-game Safeco Field series that begins Friday night.

A few months ago, when the season was still young and our body clocks hadn’t aged 12 years from watching Medina, manager Lloyd McClendon mentioned how he wanted his team to take better care of business in Seattle. That hasn’t happened. The Mariners at Safeco Field are 37-38, which is the worst home record among playoff contenders and a source of curiosity.

The San Diego Padres play their home games in Petco Park, the National League’s version of Safeco Field: an expansive, pitcher-friendly yard ensconced under a marine layer that converts potential home runs into warning-track outs.

San Diego is not a good team — Bud Black’s lineup of swing-and-whiff hitters makes McClendon’s look like Murderer’s Row — but the Padres are 40-31 at home, and the Mariners are under .500.

What’s that about?

The Mariners began their penultimate 2014 homestand with a convincing victory Monday over the Houston Astros, who have no dogs in this hunt. A sweep appeared imminent, but the Astros ended up winning Tuesday and Wednesday before sparse crowds given little opportunity to generate electricity.

If you had just dropped in from Planet 9 and had no idea of what was at stake, you would’ve thought the Astros were the team girding up for the wild-card berth and the Mariners were the team en route to another 90-loss season.

Those two feeble efforts, back to back, restored the doubts of the doubters forecasting the second half of September as bleak. The Mariners’ response to a 2-1 defeat Tuesday with a total clunker Wednesday was economically summed up by McClendon: “A bad night. I managed bad, and they played bad.”

Feel free to be mad about the bad, but you might want to reconsider premonitions about the Astros series as The End of the World as We Know It.

• The A’s are reeling. A 1-0 defeat Thursday to the White Sox not only was their seventh in 10 games, it was their seventh one-run defeat in 10 games. Oakland’s playoff chances at the All-Star break were projected to be more than 99 percent, but the A’s went into a funk after trading cleanup hitter Yoenis Cespedes to Boston.

Of the nine A’s hitters manager Bob Melvin arranged Thursday afternoon to face White Sox ace Chris Sale, catcher Derek Norris was the only one with a batting average over .260.

• The Mariners aren’t at full strength. Their ideal outfield trio — Dustin Ackley in left, Austin Jackson in center, Michael Saunders in right — has yet to play together.

Saunders went on the disabled list with a strained oblique muscle on July 10, just as Ackley was rediscovering the sweet swing that made him an obvious choice as the No. 2 overall pick of the 2010 draft. Saunders’ recovery from the muscle strain was complicated by a viral infection, and he didn’t get clearance to return to the Mariners’ lineup until Monday — two days after Ackley was forced to sit out because of bone chips in his left ankle

Since opening day, the Mariners’ outfield has been a sort of collective, mix-and-match-and-see-

what-works proposition. Abe Almonte, James Jones, Corey Hart, Logan Morrison, Stefen Romero, Cole Gillespie and Endy Chavez — a rotating door of a group that brings to mind the inspired name of a 1980s punk band, “Phil ’n the Blanks” — were typical options for McClendon.

But the next time the manager is able to write the names of Ackley, Jackson and Saunders on the lineup card, it’ll be the first time. Don’t underestimate the impact. Advanced stats such as “WAR” — Wins Above Replacement level — put Saunders at 2.0 and Ackley at 1.5. No other Mariners’ outfielder is over 0.5.

• The remainder of schedule is tough, but it’s not frightening: Three against the A’s? The Mariners are 9-7 versus Oakland. Seven against the Angels? The Mariners are 7-5 versus Los Angeles, or Anaheim, or whatever they are.

Three against the Astros? The Mariners are 9-7 versus Houston. Four against the Blue Jays? The Mariners are 3-0 versus Toronto.

A 17-game stretch in 17 days, with the Mother of all Road Trips in the middle of it, sounds daunting. But check out the numbers: Against the teams awaiting them, the Mariners are nine games over .500.

They can do this. They can qualify for the playoffs with a wild-card berth, and once the Mariners are in the playoffs, anything and everything is possible.

Ready when you are, Yoervis.