Not so long ago and yet very far away, the Mariners found themselves in a place manager Scott Servais described as “rock bottom.”
Over an eight-game stretch between Seattle, Washington D.C. and Boston, the Mariners lost seven times, by an average score of 7-1. Consecutive shutouts at Fenway Park put their record at 22-29, fifth place in the A.L West.
It’s convenient to suggest improvement was inevitable, because the Mariners couldn’t play any worse. Not true. Week-long skids often presage month-long skids, when losing becomes a habit.
The Mariners were too talented, and too proud, to surrender to the quirky injustices that befuddle even the best of teams. They took a getaway-day game at Boston, won two in a row in Colorado, and ended up salvaging both a road trip and, likely, a season.
“From where were about seven-eight days ago, to be at the point we are now, says a lot about our team and the makeup of the guys in the room, especially the leadership group,” Servais said Sunday at Safeco Field, where the Mariners completed a weekend sweep of Tampa Bay that gave them seven wins in eight games.
The leadership group, Servais said, is comprised of the heart-of-the-order veterans – second baseman Robinson Cano, designated hitter Nelson Cruz and third baseman Kyle Seager – “the guys who drive the train.”
“When things weren’t looking so good, and they weren’t – I made the comment we were at rock bottom – our guys responded, and I tip my hat to them,” Servais said. “It’s about the players, and they stepped up.”
What’s impressive about the resurgence is that it largely was accomplished without contributions from the guys who drive the train.
Cano is putting the ball in play, but gloves are getting to the ball and his batting average has fallen to .282. Seager is hitting .255, with only five homers.
Here’s what’s encouraging: While Cano and Seager await the hot streaks that are sure to come, the rest of the batting order has chipped in.
First baseman Danny Valencia, still nursing a wrist injury, went on a 9-for-9 tear against the Rays. Catcher Mike Zunino drove in seven runs on Saturday night, thanks to a grand slam that darn near sailed over the left-field upper deck. Taylor Motter’s slam on Friday wasn’t as grand, but it gave the utility man 20 RBIs in 48 games.
The offensive revival has coincided with the emergence of a hobo-stew starting rotation – veteran minor leaguers determined to make the most of their unanticipated opportunity.
“All the injuries we’ve had, we’ve tried to keep things in perspective,” Servais said. “We’re not asking them to throw complete-game shutouts. Just keep us in the ballgame.”
Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. quietly has revealed himself among the best in the business, coaxing superior efforts from the likes of Triple-A starters Sam Gaviglio and Christian Bergman.
“Mel’s done a really good job with the guys understanding who they are,” Servais said. “He takes the scouting report and applies it to what they should do.
“You have to trust your stuff.”
As does Servais, who trusts the Mariners endurance of two months of aches and pains has steeled them for a four-month roll.
When his team finally climbs over .500 – I’m thinking it will be Thursday against the Twins, or Friday against the Blue Jays – a scare last week will be recalled as momentous.
Cruz was hit on the hand with a pitch that turned the festive afternoon crowd at Safeco Field quiet for a minute or so. Cruz picked himself off the ground and went to first base, but there are 27 bones in the human hand, and what were the odds a fastball didn’t break one of them?
“We’ll deal with it,” Servais said in a tone that approached defiant. If injuries haven’t wrecked us by now, he seemed to say, injuries are never going to wreck us.
Cruz was back in the lineup the following night, batting cleanup. Whew. A bad break was avoided.
The Mariners aren’t going to overtake the Astros for the A.L. West division title, but by bouncing back from rock bottom, they’ve given themselves – and the rest of us – a reason to believe a trying spring was a warm-up for a special summer.