SEATTLE — The homestand finished with the Mariners in the same place they were when it started — sitting at .500 (53-53) and close enough to the American League wild card to do something more than dream about the postseason. And just far away to wonder if it really is possible to end baseball’s longest active postseason drought.
Their last 10 games at Safeco Field provided multiple reminders of all the reasons why this team could push its way into the postseason for the first time since 2001. But it also offered examples of the frustrating stretches of bad baseball that has never allowed this team to stay above the .500 mark this season.
But will Sunday’s 9-1 win over the Mets — the best baseball the team played in the 10 games at Safeco Field — be the start of sustained success?
It won’t be easy. Seattle enters the most brutal stretch of a schedule that seems borderline unfair. Of their next 28 games, the Mariners play just seven at home (Aug. 10-16). The upcoming trip starts with a three-game series in Arlington vs. the Rangers and four key games against the Royals, who they are chasing in the wild card standings.
“We need to play at the top of our game and everybody has to be contributing up and down that lineup, the rotation, the bullpen,” manager Scott Servais said. “We know what’s ahead of us. We will embrace what’s ahead of us. We are not going to shy away from it. You looked at the schedule way back in January when I first got asked about it, well, it is what it is. We have an interesting August ahead of us. It will very challenging. We’ll find out a lot about our club. But we finished up on a high note at home.”
To Nelson Cruz, it’s nothing new.
“We’ve played pretty good on the road,” Cruz said. “Hopefully, we can keep doing what we are doing. We live on the road most of the time. It’s nothing new. It’s part of who we are as a team. We travel the most and have the farthest flights of anyone. It doesn’t come easy. But we are used to it.”
It will be interesting to see which players remain with the Rangers. Yu Darvish (Tuesday) and Andrew Cashner (Wednesday) are scheduled to pitch in the series, but both are likely be traded by Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline along with All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy.
Of the nine times they’ve been at .500 this season, only once they have gone over. It was a brief two-game period in late June when pushed to 39-37, only to lose nine of 11 games.
While a 5-5 homestand is still suboptimal, Seattle did win its last two series against the Red Sox and Mets after a disappointing 1-3 showing against the Yankees. They’ve won four of their five series since the All-Star break.
“You were hoping to win all the series, but we stubbed our toe a bit against the Yankees,” Servais said. “We’ve responded.”
The Mariners made it look simple in the homestand finale, getting another outstanding start from James Paxton and plenty of run support, kick-started by Nelson Cruz’s mammoth three-run homer into the left-field upper deck in the first inning off Mets’ starter Seth Lugo.
Paxton tossed six shutout innings, giving up six hits with no walks to improve to 11-3 and lower his ERA to 2.68. He became the first player in franchise history to notch six wins in a month.
“Paxton, what a month, wow,” Servais said. “He really has led us charging up the mountain. I didn’t even think he was like his best stuff-wise,” Servais said. “I thought he was just a tick off with his breaking stuff, but his fastball was really good, he pounded the zone and he got us where we needed to go.”
For his 6-0 month of July, Paxton posted a 1.37 ERA, allowing just six earned runs in 39 1/3 innings pitched with 46 strikeouts and just six walks. He held opponents to just a .182 batting average and didn’t allow a homer. Paxton has never had a stretch like this in his career, certainly not six wins in a month at any level.
“This is a first for me,” he said. “It’s a good feeling. Today wasn’t my best. My location wasn’t very good today and my breaking ball wasn’t its best. But I battled. We got through it pretty well.”
His team provided ample run support from the first inning and on, roughing up Mets starter Seth Lugo.
After hitting two rocket foul balls to the left side, Cruz got one workable pitch to stay fair, hammering a 1-2 changeup into the upper deck of deep left center. The blast measured 444 feet by MLB statcast.
“I guess was lucky to wait on that one and keep it fair,” he said.
The second inning belonged to outfielder Leonys Martin, who played his way off the team in early April and was brought up from Class AAA Tacoma on Sunday morning to replace the injured Mitch Haniger.
In the top of the second, Martin made a brilliant sliding/diving catch on Curtis Granderson’s sinking line drive to right that helped Paxton work out of a minor jam. In the bottom of the inning.
“He’s a really good athlete and just a natural athlete” Servais said. “His first step quickness and instincts are tremendous. It was a big play in the game early on. He’s not afraid. That’s for sure. It was a good way to welcome him in.”
Martin slammed a solo homer in his first at-bat, sending a towering shot that bounced off the windows of the Hit It Here Cafe to make it 4-0.
“That was a really exciting moment for me,” he said. “It’s been a long time having played mostly in the minor leagues.”
Seattle tacked on another run in the inning on Robinson Cano’s RBI double to right-center.
Seattle continued to tack on runs late against a hapless Mets team that committed two errors that helped the process.
The Mariners totaled 12 hits, including five extra base hits.
“To win on the road, you’ve got to hit,” Servais said.
Their attempt at a shutout ended in the ninth when James Pazos gave up a late run. Emilio Pagan provided two innings of scoreless relief. He’s allowed just one run in his last 21 1/3 innings pitched with 24 strikeouts.