Oakland series big for Mariners

SEATTLE — This is not a drill. I repeat, this is not a drill.

Something unusual is coming to Seattle this weekend, something we haven’t seen around these parts is quite some time. The Mariners are hosting what qualifies as a big series against a division rival; they’re playing meaningful baseball past the halfway mark of the season, one playoff contender hosting another.

Sure a few recent hiccups and some anemic offensive performances have taken a bit of the luster off of this weekend’s series against the first-place Oakland Athletics, but even if the Mariners have cooled off slightly, this weekend carries some significance for a franchise trying to establish itself as a legit contender after years of losing. This weekend represents at the very least a chance to take a little momentum into the All-Star break while remaining Wild Card hopefuls, and at the most a chance to gain a little ground on the team with the best record in baseball, keeping alive the faint hope of catching the A’s.

The latter seems pretty unlikely right now. Oakland is currently playing at a 102-win pace. However, with nearly half a season remaining, a Mariners’ sweep before the break would close the gap enough that one Seattle hot streak combined with a rough patch for the A’s would be enough to make things interesting. And after 12 consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance, making things interesting qualifies as progress.

The Mariners even shuffled their rotation so they can use their top three starters against the A’s, beginning with Felix Hernandez tonight, followed by Hisashi Iwakuma on Saturday and Chris Young on Sunday. Yet, despite the moves made to set up the rotation, which included an all-bullpen game in Thursday’s 4-2 loss to Minnesota, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon insists he and his team aren’t making the Oakland series anything more than just the next three games in a long season.

“No, I’m not, I’m really not,” McClendon said when asked about putting extra importance on the Oakland series. “I’m just doing what any other manager would do at the end of the first half. You’ve got an opportunity to put your best and most experienced pitchers out there, you do it. Whether it’s Oakland or Pittsburgh or anybody else, you just put your best out there and try to finish up the first half.

“I learned a long time ago you don’t put importance on one series. What happens if you get swept? The season’s over? That’s why you don’t do that. My motto is ‘take it one day at time,’ and I mean it. It sounds cliché, but it’s the way I feel. One day at a time.”

And there are legitimate other reasons for the rotation juggling, including that it gives Hernandez an extra day of rest in a season in which he’s regularly pitching into the eighth inning and throwing 100-plus pitches. The Mariners now also can come out of the break with Iwakuma and Hernandez to open the second half.

But even if McClendon really isn’t placing any extra emphasis on the next three games, there’s nothing stopping the rest of us from doing so.

If the Mariners can win the series, or perhaps even get a sweep, it will leave everyone feeling good about the team heading into a four-day break.

“Listen, there’s nothing like a win before a day off, it makes that day off a lot better,” McClendon said.

Lose the series, or worse, get swept, and fans will spend the next four days wondering if the first half was just a tease and if in fact this will be another lost season. So even if the Mariners insist that they can’t treat this as a big series, they also understand why others might be doing so. Weekend series, first-place opponent, beautiful weather — it’s a recipe for big crowds and more of a big-game atmosphere than Safeco Field has seen in a while.

“Obviously they’re in first place, they’re in front of us, so it lines up to be a pretty exciting series, but it’s the same for us,” infielder Willie Bloomquist said. “The players take it as one game at a time, but yeah, for the fans, it’s probably a pretty exciting series.”

And even if the players spout the one-game-at-a-time clichés, they also have to admit that, yes, beating the team with the best record in baseball would be good for their psyche.

Take Michael Saunders, for example, who said, “Our goal is to win series consistently throughout the year. It doesn’t matter who our opponent is. If we do that, if we take care of our business, we’re going to like where we’re at at the end of the year.” But who then continued saying, “Now that being said, heading into the All-Star break, would we like to win the series against Oakland? It would definitely be gratifying to be able to beat a team in our division.”

So which is it? Is it a big series or just another three-game set before the break?

It feels kind of big, so whether or not McClendon wants to hype the next three games, let’s just appreciate that the Mariners are actually making him have to answer those questions in mid-July. It might be a foreign feeling to baseball fans around here, but this weekend, meaningful summer baseball is on display at Safeco Field in the form of a series that could kick start a memorable second half of the season.

“We’ve got to take care of our business,” Saunders said. “If we take care of our business, we’ll be fine. We’ll see where we’re at by the end of September, but this season, going into September is definitely different than previous years. The September games will count. We’ve put ourselves in a position to be competitive, and it’s going to be a very exciting finish to the season.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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