By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — A few minutes before Felix Hernandez fired the game’s first pitch, fans were already fired up. The singing of “O Canada” was met with audible groans from fans in Edgar’s Cantina. The Blue Jays contingent, and it was significant, responded by playfully booing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Two hours later, lightning and thunder punctuated a seven-run Mariners sixth, rain poured on a gleeful packed house that didn’t seem to mind a tardy appearance from Safeco Field’s retractable roof, and King Felix got back to mowing down opposing hitters.
It was that kind of night at the ballpark, which is to say, it was a very fun night at the ballpark.
Nothing was decided Monday except for a single baseball game between two American League contenders — the Mariners and Blue Jays came into the game tied in the Wild Card standings.
But, boy did this one just feel big.
Welcome to Mariners baseball, 2014 version, where games in mid August aren’t just important, they come with a playoff-like atmosphere complete with a side of nationalism to spice things up. If there’s been a more exciting, meaningful game in this stadium this late in the season since, say, 2003, I can’t remember one.
The Mariners haven’t been this good, this late in the season for a very long time. For far too long, this kind of buzz was only evident at Safeco Field on opening day. And for far too long, these kind of crowds only came with the presence of a desirable bobble head. But on a steamy Monday night, 41,168 showed up to see the Mariners beat the Blue Jays 11-1 not because of a gimmick, but because of baseball games with playoff implications, an ace on the mound, and yes, because a huge number of Canadians made their way down from British Columbia.
We haven’t seen playoff baseball in Seattle since 2001, but for a night, and likely for this entire series between two teams battling for a wild card berth, this felt a heck of a lot like a playoff atmosphere, never mind a few “U.S.A.” chants to spice things up.
“This is definitely a big series,” said third baseman Kyle Seager. “We definitely know where we stand and where they are, everybody’s right in the hunt, so it’s definitely got a lot of buzz around it for sure in the locker room. But at the same time, you have to treat it like we’ve been doing. We’ve been playing hard every game, so we’re not going to play extra hard.”
Players can’t overreact to a single series, not when there are still 44 games left on the schedule, but why the heck can’t fans? It’s sometimes hard to remember seeing as it’s been so long, but when the Mariners are playing well, this is a hell of a baseball town. And even if players can’t put too much weight into a single game or a single series, they can appreciate what it means to be playing big games this late into summer, especially players who have been here for a few years.
“It’s great,” Seager said. “It’s something that a lot of us haven’t been able to do, which is why were here. This what you want to be doing, you want to be playing for something bigger than you, and that’s what this is. This has been exciting. This is baseball, this is what we all signed up for.”
As fun as Monday night was at the Safe, it was also, in a way, just the beginning. If the Mariners are going to continue to stay in the hunt for their first postseason berth since 2001, the next seven weeks will be full of big games and big series.
“I think people are excited about what’s happening,” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said. “The one thing I caution is I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m going to enjoy the journey and I told my players to enjoy the journey. We’re in it, it’s an exciting time. I like our chances, I like my team, let’s see what happens. Should be fun.”
Enjoy the journey, McClendon says. He’s right, we don’t know how this is going to end, or if the Mariners can score runs consistently enough to support their superb pitching staff, or if said pitching can continue its absurd run to carry an oft-struggling lineup. But at least fans have a journey to enjoy in August. Sure, every night won’t be full houses, Robinson Cano home runs and thunderstorms, but Monday night was just a glimpse of what baseball can be in Seattle if the Mariners keep winning.
“It’s been really exciting,” Seager said before the game. “You can feel it when you’re out there playing. The crowds have been a lot bigger, a lot more into it, a lot more electric.”
A few hours later, lightning struck.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.