SEATTLE — Perhaps better than anyone, veteran designated hitter Russell Branyan can gauge the difference in the feel of the Seattle Mariners’ clubhouse this season compared with last.
He was a key player in 2009 when the Mariners were a close-knit group that exceeded expectations and won 85 games. After starting this season with the Cleveland Indians only to be traded back to the Mariners on June 26, Branyan walked back into the same clubhouse but a completely different atmosphere.
In the grasp of a last-place season headed toward 100 losses, manager Don Wakamatsu became the most prominent victim Monday when the team fired him, along with bench coach Ty VanBurkleo, pitching coach Rick Adair and mental performance coach Steve Hecht.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Branyan said of the difference in the two seasons. “It’s not so much differences from this year to last year, but the fact that the team just wasn’t winning. People can speculate and say it’s because of this, this and this. No one really knows the answer because if they did, we’d be winning today.”
The bottom line, Branyan said, is that the Mariners — and Wakamatsu — succumbed to expectations that fell far short.
“People talked about adding new pieces, expectations … all of that comes together and it adds more expectations on a ball team,” Branyan said. “When the team’s going one way and expectations are going the other way, that’s not what you want to see out of an organization that you’re trying to improve.
“But the game of baseball is tough. You’ve got 29 other teams out there trying to kick your butt, and there’s only X-amount of divisions and X-amount of first-place spots. When you’re not in first place and not competing, it makes for a long season.”
And jobs are lost.
When Branyan played in Milwaukee two years ago, the Brewers fired manager Ned Yost with two weeks remaining in the season.
“And they were going to the playoffs,” Branyan said.
Wakamatsu’s firing surprised Branyan and saddened him.
“I haven’t been here the whole year, but I know that the man that was in that office yesterday and the man that was in there last year hadn’t changed,” he said. “Don had maintained a level of professionalism that you like. He prided himself on building relationships and having his guys go out there and compete and win ballgames. That didn’t happen this year.
“There had been speculation the last couple of weeks. Any time something like this happens it is a great surprise. But my relationship with Don made this even more surprising because I knew the man that he is.”
Branyan wouldn’t talk about speculation that Wakamatsu had lost the ear of the veteran players in the clubhouse.
“You can speculate and point fingers and talk about the clubhouse or this and that, but I don’t think anyone really has an answer,” he said. “I just know that we lost a good man today in Don Wakamatsu and his three coaches.”
Relief pitcher Shawn Kelley was preparing for an exam on his injured right elbow Monday when he received a text message that Wakamatsu had been fired.
“I’m a little surprised, but how many times do you see a team that’s on pace to lose 100 games …” Kelley said. “There’s going to be victims to that — players, coaches, managers. That’s the unfortunate side of this game. Winning is the cure-all.”
Kelley said he would miss Adair tremendously.
“He was one of the most brilliant pitching minds I’ve ever worked under,” Kelley said. “It’s hard. But we’ve got to move on and continue to do our jobs and prepare ourselves to play. It’s going to be a little sad at first without him here, but we’ll move on. We have to.”
Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at www.heraldnet.com/marinersblog