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John McGrath: Luck just as vital as revamped roster for Mariners

One game came between the Seattle Mariners and a shot at continuing the 2014 season as a wild-card team.

One lousy game, out of 162, found the Mariners watching the world champion San Francisco Giants jump into an infield dog pile and thinking: They’re no better than we are.

Ah, but San Francisco was better, and you can look it up. The Giants won 88 games and qualified for the playoffs. The Mariners won 87 games and cleared out their lockers.

A baseball season lasts six months — almost eight, if you count spring training — and the notion of an eight-month marathon turning on a single game is something neither the players nor their manager want to address.

“You don’t take any games home with you,” they’ll say. “You can’t get too high or too low.”

They repeat these words because bromides are preferable to considering the fact that one game can determine whether or not a season is successful. If a player acknowledges the potential implications of blowing a ninth-inning lead on, say, April 6, he will be a candidate for a nervous breakdown on April 7.

But facts are facts. The Mariners’ record in one-run decisions last season was 18-27. Had their record in one-run decisions been 19-26, they would have faced the Oakland A’s in a Safeco Field tiebreaker, with the winner advancing to Kansas City for the wild-card contest.

An imperfect but informative advanced statistic, Wins Above Replacement, reveals a player’s value by measuring how many victories he’s worth to his team, over the course of a season, above the “replacement-level” player who’s a standard-issue waiver acquisition. The Mariners’ batting order for their 2014 opener against the Los Angeles Angels included Abraham Almonte (0.2 WAR), Justin Smoak (-0.6) and Michael Saunders (2.4).

Almonte, Smoak and Saunders have been traded. Their slots in the batting order for the Monday afternoon opener at Safeco Field belong to center fielder Austin Jackson (0.1), designated hitter Nelson Cruz (4.7), and right fielder Seth Smith (3.9).

According to the advanced-stat math, the Mariners have upgraded their season-opening lineup by 6.7 wins. If the blackboard chalk turns out to be durable — and let’s emphasize the “if” — Seattle’s 87-75 record in 2014 improves to 94-68, which helps explain why Lloyd McClendon’s team broke spring training as the American League’s flavor of the month.

The reality is more nuanced, of course. Starting pitching, the bullpen and the bench will be every bit as crucial to a playoff push as an offense whose cleanup spot has been turned over from the negative replacement-level production of Smoak to the 40 home-run bat of Cruz.

If Felix Hernandez suffers ...

Nope. Not going there. Opening day is the absolute worst time to put the words “Felix” and “suffers” in the same sentence.

Still, you get my drift. A lot has to go right for the Mariners to return to the 90-victory threshold for the first time since 2003, and luck is required for things to go right.

The Giants weren’t the best team in their division last season — you can look that up, too — nor were the Kansas City Royals, San Francisco’s opponents in a surprisingly captivating World Series. But the Giants and Royals won enough to put their foot in the door, and once feet are in the door, all bets are off.

One game could be the difference between playing through October and going home. The premise is both frightening and exciting: If one game looms as a difference, one inning is a difference, and if one inning is a difference, one at-bat is a difference, and one pitch is a difference, and one routine throw on a force-out play at second base is a difference.

No rational person believes Brad Miller’s underhanded toss to second baseman Robinson Cano last spring — it sailed over Cano’s head, keeping the ninth inning alive for the Texas Rangers, who went on to win, 3-2, on April 16 — cost Seattle a playoff berth.

The Mariners, after all, lost 74 other times.

But if that toss is caught in Texas, perhaps there’s a tiebreaker showdown against the A’s at Safeco Field.

Fasten your seat belts, folks, for a long and bumpy ride that won’t conclude until October. The destination could hinge on one play executed on April 6.

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