The obvious conclusion while watching the Mariners butcher the game of baseball Sunday at Safeco Field was that their hearts and heads were elsewhere in anticipation of the All-Star break.
But the Mariners didn’t merely play with a last-school-day-before-vacation indifference during their first-half finale against the Los Angeles Angels. They played like a team that was trying to get its manager fired.
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“The worst game of the year.”
Those were the terms Lloyd McClendon used to describe a 10-3 defeat that was even more of a mismatch than the score indicated. The Mariners were charged with three errors and committed at least as many defensive mistakes not scored as errors — basic stuff, like the pitcher failing to back up home on a throw to the plate.
Managers can and do survive seasons with losing records. Managers rarely survive seasons that find their teams unfocused and ill-prepared for pivotal home games against division rivals.
“We’ve got to get better,” McClendon said. “We need to string together wins. That’s the message I’m going to send to my club starting the second half. I’ve given my club a lot of string and allowed them to do a lot of things, but it’s not working.
“We have to change things.”
McClendon declined to specify either the things he’s allowed his team to do or the things he plans to change, but it’s inevitable some kind of clubhouse meeting will be held when the Mariners reconvene Friday in New York. In other words, he has four full days to cobble together some thoughts on how to motivate a team that, as he put it, “takes one step forward and two steps back.”
If I’m McClendon, my sermon setting the tone for the second half begins like this:
“I’ve been fired once from this job, and I’m not real crazy about getting fired again. My future is on the line, and I’ll be darned if I’ll let you guys decide it by playing as if you’re half-asleep.”
McClendon might want to substitute another word for “darned,” and there are limitless options for modifiers preceding “half-asleep.” But you get the idea: The 2015 season, so rich with promise and potential four months ago, has devolved into a test on whether Lloyd McClendon gets a chance for a third season in Seattle.
He belonged in the conversation for American League Manager of the Year in 2014, when he took over a team with modest aspirations and kept hope alive through 161 games and halfway through the 162nd. That McClendon doesn’t belong in the conversation for 2015 ranks as an understatement along the lines of “Mike Zunino sure strikes out a lot” and “Mark Trumbo has defensive limitations as an outfielder.”
Trumbo’s “Destination Wherever” throw from left field Sunday started a third-inning sequence that might have lived in blooper-highlight eternity had Zunino not applied a run-saving tag at home on Erick Aybar. Trumbo moved to right field in the seventh inning and tracked a line drive by taking a step backward instead of a few steps forward, turning an out into a hit while precisely mimicking the wrong-way route the Mariners have taken as a team.
“You try to stay positive and encourage your club,” said McClendon, who typically refers to his club in the tone of an affectionate dog owner resigned to the suspicion unconditional obedience is impossible.
“But maybe it takes prodding of a different nature,” he continued. “If that’s the case, that will happen.”
Maybe it takes prodding of a different nature? There’s no maybe about it. Nothing short of a miracle will allow the Mariners to leapfrog their way into the playoff race, but the second half of the season no longer is about the playoff race that never was.
The second half of McClendon’s second season in Seattle is about convincing his team to play smart and be ready to play all-out all the time, so that the manager gets a shot at a third season in Seattle.