Stellar season poorly timed for Mariners


Seattle Mariners’ Brad Miller steals second against Los Angeles Angels shortstop Erick Aybar in the 6th inning on Tuesday, May 27, 2014, in Seattle.

Of all seasons, it had to be this one. The Seattle Mariners are on track to finish above .500 for the first time since 2009, which sounds great by itself. But unfortunately for the Mariners and their fans, the division is tougher this year than ever before.

The Oakland Athletics are having an unusually phenomenal year as well, perched atop the American League West with the best record in the major leagues. Hot on their tails are the Los Angeles Angels, who had won eight of their last 10 games heading into Monday, putting them well ahead of the Mariners in both the division and the wild card standings.

In any other division, the Mariners would be right in the thick of the race. They can still earn one of two wild card spots, thanks to the 2012 rule change, but those aren’t so coveted anymore for the same reason. A one-game playoff between the two wild card teams eliminates one squad that worked just as hard to qualify for the playoffs. Winning a wild card berth almost gives teams a sense of false hope now.

If the Mariners win a wild card spot, and they should count on it at this point, a feeling of foreboding would be natural for fans everywhere. After all, they are used to disappointment. No matter how natural that feeling might be, there is hope this year, and it comes in three forms.

Twin aces

In a one-game playoff, it’s almost always difficult to decide whether to use the ace of the pitching staff to win that game or to use an alternate starter to save the ace for Game 1 of the subsequent series. The Mariners don’t have that problem. Felix Hernandez is the unquestioned leader of the staff, but the Mariners have the luxury of a pitcher who could function as the ace if needed in the wild card playoff. Hisashi Iwakuma has been dominant this season and during his entire career in the majors. This year he has posted an 8-4 record and a 2.95 ERA heading into Monday. Perhaps more importantly, he has posted a WHIP of 0.99. Additionally, Hernandez is the only starter with at least seven starts this season who is better than Iwakuma in that category. If it comes down to it, the Mariners should feel completely comfortable with choosing either Hernandez or Iwakuma to propel themselves into the next round of the playoffs.

Record vs. the likely opponent

Obviously, it also matters who the Mariners play in the wild card round. This opponent will be just as good, if not better than Seattle in terms of its record and possibly its statistics. However, at this point, it looks as though the two wild card teams are going to emerge from the AL West. Heading into Monday, the Mariners sat in third place in their division, but their record would be good enough for second place in the other two divisions in the American League. That means in all likelihood the Mariners will be playing either the Angels or the Athletics. Against the Angels this season, Seattle has gone 7-5. The Mariners even have a 7-6 record against Oakland, the best team in baseball heading into Monday.

Record in series openers

Perhaps the most alarming fact about the wild card game is that it is only one game. Anything can happen, and it is unlike any other round in the playoffs because it is not a series that allows for multiple shifts in momentum. One shift in the wild card round could mean elimination. However, the Mariners have been phenomenal this season in their first cracks at their opponents. This season, the Mariners have gone 20-11 in the first game of the series heading into Monday. Those games weren’t all started by Hernandez either, so that record is the product of contributions from the entire team.

An interesting side note to each of these points is that it would actually help the Mariners to take the lower wild card seed. Heading into Monday, they were 24-26 at home and 28-20 on the road. It’s highly unusual for a team to hope for a game away from its home turf, but in this case, it would behoove the Mariners to do so.

The statistics favor the Mariners in this winner-take-all scenario, but the fact remains that they’ll have to suffer through a far more grueling path to the World Series than they deserve.

It’s hardest to start from the bottom, but if the baseball gods will favor any team this year, it should be the Mariners.