What should we think about the Seattle Mariners?
They can sure hit — at times — and enough pitching has been strung together to keep them within striking distance of .500 and the American League wild-card chase.
And, hope remains. Miracle comebacks do happen. Case in point: The 1995 team hovered around .500 for a while and Lou Piniella's group had a 44-46 record through 90 games (one better than the 2017 team) and trailed first-place California by as many as 12 1/2 games (Aug. 20). The '95 Mariners were 62-61 on Sept. 7, but finished the truncated regular season on a 16-5 streak while the Angels stumbled, and then they beat the Angels in a one-game playoff at a very loud Kingdome (trust me, I was there). They went on to beat the New York Yankees in memorable Game 5 of the American League Division Series and then lost in the AL Championship Series to Cleveland.
In due respect to Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz, I'm not sensing another epic run, a la 1995. That was spurred by three of the greatest players in major league history — Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez. The current M's won't catch first-place Houston in the AL West. A wild-card berth? It could happen, if pitching stabilizes and Hernandez returns to Cy Young-level form and key players stay healthy.
But a betting man would say the 41st season of Mariners baseball appears to be heading toward the end-result of the previous 40 — on the outside looking in at the World Series. Seattle and Washington are the only two of the current franchises to not play in the World Series — the Nationals could get there this season — and the Mariners, Nationals, Tampa Bay, Houston, Texas, Milwaukee, Colorado and San Diego have never won the World Series. (Of those, only San Diego has a worse record this season than Seattle, for what it's worth).
It's been interesting following the Mariners for 41 seasons now, albeit lately from afar here in the Rose City. Yours truly, who updates game stories for portlandtribune.com, remembers the days of the Kingdome, Diego Segui pitching the first game ever (a 7-0 win against Angels), Ruppert Jones, Julio Cruz, watching the Boston Red Sox and Yankees in person and Dave Parker throwing out two runners in the 1979 All-Star Game, the seasons of mediocrity through the 1980s and then the team breaking through with .500 records (83-79 in 1991, 82-80 in 1993).
Then there was the stretch from 1995 to 2001, when I covered the Mariners from the press box and clubhouse:
• Surging to the '95 playoffs in August and September; it's a wonderful thing in sports to witness, a team gaining momentum and then overcoming the odds to win.
• Beating the Yankees on Martinez's double and Griffey Jr.'s iconic run — a play I watched from Hawaii while on vacation.
• Losing to the Indians in Game 6 of the ALCS in the raucous Kingdome, after which Cleveland's Dave Winfield looked around at the appreciation shown by the fans and said (within earshot of this reporter), "Wow, this is something special."
• Surviving bullpen woes, Johnson back-injury drama and more to make the playoffs again (1997), led by the dynamic offense of Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and others.
• The retooling job performed for 2000 and 2001. I still remember watching Carlos Guillen's squeeze bunt that plated the game-winning run to beat the Chicago White Sox in the 2000 playoffs. I still remember New York's Roger Clemens throwing high and tight against Rodriguez in the 2000 ALCS, as part of his one-hit, 15-strikeout masterpiece. I remember sitting in the right-field press seats watching Clemens — and Al Martin notching the only hit — and also pondering the question, "How well will Ichiro Suzuki do in the United States?"
And, even after the 2000 team's heroics, as they moved on from Johnson and Griffey Jr., the Mariners made history in 2001 without A-Rod and with the sensation known as "Ichi" to my mother, who used to watch Mariners' games (or listen, with the TV cranked up to 11).
For perspective, the Mariners are 43-47 right now; in 2001, they were 65-25 at the All-Star break and 18 games ahead in the standings en route to their incredible 116-46 record.
But, alas, despite Pat Gillick's adept player moves and Piniella's managing and the stupendous balance of offense and pitching, the Mariners still couldn't make the World Series in 2001. The darn Yankees got in the way again.
A lot has been made about Seattle's 15-year drought of not making the postseason, but the Mariners had 93-win teams in 2002 and 2003. Star power has come and gone (Ichiro), and come again (Hernandez and Cano). It's been remarkable, really, watching how for many years the Mariners couldn't develop home-grown hitting prospects and struggled to fill the power positions of corner outfield and infield positions with capable players. I understand the need, in theory, to fit the team with pitching, defense and line-drive hitters, playing 81 games at Safeco Field, but that approach clearly hasn't worked out well. And, whereas I consider Ichiro one of the greatest pure hitters of all-time on any continent in the art of simply hitting the baseball for hits, he couldn't help the Mariners rise up and make the playoffs after 2001.
Which brings us to the 2017 Mariners, and what needs to happen in the next 72 games to make the playoffs. It's an overused phrase, but 100 percent accurate: They need to be more consistent.
Either Hernandez or James Paxton — or both — have to be stoppers. It's been well-documented that "King Felix" doesn't throw with the same velocity, but he can still be great on given days, especially with command and his split-finger changeup. The pitching has to stabilize, and that includes hard-throwing closer Edwin Diaz.
The lineup has been bolstered by shortstop Jean Segura, the outfield quartet of Guillermo Heredia, Ben Gamel, Mitch Haniger and Jarrod Dyson, resurgent catcher Mike Zunino and veteran first baseman Danny Valencia — all surrounding Cano, Cruz and Kyle Seager.
Listening to and watching the Mariners, optimism always abounds from the Root Sports Northwest folks.
"Let's keep everybody healthy," play-by-play man Dave Sims says. "The hitting will take care of itself. It's all about pitching."
After the Mariners' 4-0 win over Oakland right before the All-Star break, a victory that included a positive outing from Hernandez and solid bullpen work, analyst Bill Krueger said: "Today was an absolute demonstration of what this team needs to be. You talk about an elite 1-2 (Hernandez, Paxton) ... these two guys need to be the workhorses. The bullpen, you saw today, there's a nice little order of what it could be. Diaz, I just think he needs regular work, he'll be fine. ... I like the offensive swagger. It really comes down to how you make the other team feel. They (the Mariners) need to impose their will. This team is good enough to be feared."
As far as the view from the clubhouse, manager Scott Servais remains positive.
"To not play to our capabilities, it's frustrating," he says. "We're better than that."
And, star players say the team has the right players and the right attitude.
"We've got to go out and compete and have everybody feel healthy," Hernandez told reporters.
"I think we have most of the guys healthy," Cruz added. "We just have to be consistent. That would be the issue. We have the right guys."