SEATTLE — The Seattle Mariners have to sit and watch postseason baseball wondering what went wrong in the second half of the 2018 season and what they can salvage going forward.
Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto saw the same things Mariners fans did — a team that struggled to score in the season’s final months, a tiring pitching staff and a clubhouse scuffle in early September. What happened?
“At the end of the day they are the same people who were the driving force behind a great first-half culture that in the second half took a southward dive that looked very similar to what our wins and losses looked like,” Dipoto said. “I don’t think the people changed.
“I don’t know what comes first — the cart or the horse, winning and clubhouse chemistry, or losing and clubhouse strife. I’ve experienced both of those throughout my career, and when you’re losing when you’ve had a big season and you had a big lead and it’s spiraling and you’re giving up that lead, it manifests itself in what you saw, which was a group of guys that were struggling to cope with it and deal with it, and different people show that in different ways.”
The Mariners touted their camaraderie when they soared in the first half. It’s easy to have fun when things are going as good as they were for the Mariners, running to a season-high 24 games above .500 on July 5 and the fourth-best record in Major League Baseball.
As the summer wore on, the Mariners began to wilt just as their American League West counterparts, the Oakland Athletics, began a surge.
Then there was a players-only meeting, and later a clubhouse scuffle between Dee Gordon and Jean Segura, though neither admitted publicly to what transpired after Gordon asked media members to step outside the clubhouse doors on Sept. 4.
Later that night, the Mariners lost to the MLB-worst Baltimore Orioles.
“They’re good people,” Dipoto said. “This is the same group of guys that had for the first three months of the season, it was the best environment that I’ve ever experienced in a major league clubhouse.”
Keep in mind, Dipoto has been in professional baseball for 30 years.
“When you’re not playing well and losing, everybody looks a little different and everybody wants to take a jab at the guy next to them,” he said.
It’s not like the Mariners shot out of the gate, but by May some players were forced to pick up their respective levels of play and they rose to the challenge.
Robinson Cano fractured his finger in Detroit when he was hit by a pitch on May 13 when Seattle was 22-17. Just two days later they learned Cano would miss the next 80 games for violating MLB’s joint drug and prevention program.
“We certainly faced some adversity early in the season with the situation with Robinson Cano getting suspended,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “I was really proud of our guys. We stepped up. We took on the challenge, and we had a very, very strong belief in our clubhouse that we would overcome the adversity.”
Then everything started going the Mariners’ way — one-run wins, extra-inning wins. From the time they lost Cano and through the next 50 games into July, the Mariners went 34-16 and sprung their overall record to 56-32.
They were 71⁄2 games ahead of the Athletics on July 4 and in the driver’s seat for one of the two wild-card spots.
Two days later, the Mariners announced Dipoto’s contract extension, and Servais got his extension shortly after, with the team touting Servais’ ability to build their clubhouse culture.
“Chemistry is really important,” Servais said. “We got into the second half and we weren’t performing at the same level, and guys were pressing a little bit and maybe trying to get the big hit or get it turned around. Then the frustrations set in. Things are starting to slip away from you. I’ve been on all kinds of teams in my life. Guys handle it differently. I think the frustration did set in, and you saw some guys react because of it.
“For me, I saw it on both sides of the spectrum — how good it can be when guys are free and believe in themselves and really have an opportunity to rise up, and then how frustrating it could be. Some guys handled it better than others, there’s no question about it.”
From July 5 on, including when Cano returned on Aug. 14, the Mariners went 52-51 and were eliminated from the playoff chase before the final week of the season despite finishing 89-73.
What the Mariners have to determine was whether that clubhouse chemistry led to the losing or if losing created the clubhouse strife. Whether the culture went so south in the final few months that it’s irreparable, or if this is a case of a narrative that’s easy to overplay, that good chemistry is given too much credit when teams are winning and bad chemistry gets too much credit when teams are losing.
It’s difficult to reconcile that with the fact the Mariners still outperformed many of the expectations on them heading into the season.
“I don’t think it was any one moment, one defining play, one defining game,” Dipoto said. “It was a collective slump while the team behind us was playing roughly unconscious baseball, and they did some great things and we have to give credit where it’s due. It’s a positive to me to say we won 89 games, which probably equals or exceeds what our expectations should have been.
“To know that it would have required 98 wins to get to the playoffs probably helps you sleep a little better because that’s not a particularly realistic goal.”