It has been a familiar position for the Mariners since 2001. They are the kids with their noses pressed to the glass watching the greatest party in the world because they didn’t get an invitation.
The Major League Baseball postseason began Tuesday with the American League wild-card game. It is a spot the Mariners had hoped and thought they would be playing in until being eliminated Saturday night. And though they finished with an 86-76 record (a 10-win improvement over 2015), they remain in the same place as those previous teams with losing records — out of the postseason. It is the longest current postseason drought in baseball.
“It’s not about finishing above .500,” manager Scott Servais said. “I’m not really up for that. You’d rather win more than you lose. But it’s about getting to the playoffs and winning a championship.”
The Mariners officially finished three games out of the wild card, though one of those was a product of playing a meaningless game on the last day of the season less than 24 hours after being eliminated.
Until the final day of the season, every game before that had playoff implications in some way.
“By one day,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “There’s so many days you could point to through a season for any club that does make the postseason, or ultimately win the World Series. That’s the day that cost us.”
Mariners fans are familiar with that lament from two years ago, and it would be easy to do again. The games are easy to remember, starting with the most recent like an extra-innings loss to Oakland on Saturday night, or Ketel Marte’s costly error on a double play that led to a defeat in Houston, or managing two runs in a loss to the lowly Minnesota Twins.
Going back through the season, there are plenty to find, whether it was Tom Wilhelmsen blowing a three-run lead in a loss to Milwaukee, or Steve Cishek’s meltdown at Wrigley Field on Sunday-night baseball, or getting swept at home by the Twins and Angels.
The Mariners played in 60 one-run games, finishing with a 30-30 record in those, and also had 25 blown saves.
Finding three “should’ve been, would’ve been” games on the schedule is easy to do.
“That’s convenient and easy to do, but there’s so many other days, particularly for us, with all the walkoff wins and the late drama,” Dipoto said.
Indeed, there is no better example than the Mariners rallying from a 10-run deficit to beat the Padres on June 2 or a few of their eight walkoff wins.
To Dipoto, the good and bad evened out and left the Mariners with who they were as a team.
“I could look back just even over the last month, and pick days, ‘Ah, we could have just gotten through that inning,’ ” he said. “That’s really not the way baseball works. What that would do is just torment you through an offseason.”
It wasn’t so much single games, but stretches of games that proved to be most costly for the Mariners. Periods of less-than-productive play because of opponents, attrition, injuries and failed execution.
“I think you can look at little pockets in our schedule,” Servais said. “You could see when we’re on the slide.”
The “June swoon” was particularly costly. It started with the injury to Felix Hernandez and then injuries to Taijuan Walker and Wade Miley and the removal of Nathan Karns from the starting rotation. The Mariners went 10-18 that month.
And in those 28 games, Seattle’s starting pitchers posted 16 games of five innings or less and posted a 5.01 ERA. That deficiency was abuse on a thin bullpen that went 2-8 in that span with a 4.58 ERA. Mariners pitchers in June allowed opponents to hit .288 with an .824 on-base plus slugging percentage.
Although Hernandez struggled with his command all season, his absence loomed large.
“It always goes back to the pitching, starting pitching, losing Felix for six, seven weeks,” Servais said. “The workload, his ability to get deep. That was a big loss.”
It was also in June when Marte went on the disabled for the first of three times and Leonys Martin missed two weeks with a strained hamstring. Seattle was forced to play Norichika Aoki in center field, and the results of extra runs allowed were not unexpected.
“When we did not have Leonys for that stretch, it was really tough,” Servais said.
Despite the struggles in June and a middling 12-12 July, Seattle clawed its way back into the race. On Aug. 21 with a victory over Milwaukee, the Mariners improved to 66-54. But Wilhelmsen’s blown save and a brutal trip where they faced a slew of left-handed starters — an issue for the offense — resulted in a 5-11 stretch.
Again, the Mariners fought back to relevance in their quest to make the postseason, winning eight straight games to be a factor in the final two weeks.
“As many people had wanted to write us off, you have to keep fighting, keep rolling, keep playing all the games,” Servais said.
While the missed opportunities are easy to point out, the Mariners’ ability to reassert themselves into the postseason race after the stretches of struggles was the key to the success they had. They proved to be a resilient group.
“We fought,” Nelson Cruz said. “I wish it was a movie so it could end like we wanted. It was an incredible run. You are going to have ups and downs, and you have to find ways to be consistent more.”
Cruz, Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager were the team’s most consistent performers. At times, they were Seattle’s only producers, which is an issue. Around baseball, only a handful of teams had a combination of three players to match their production:
—Cano: .298 batting average, .882 OPS, 33 doubles, two triples, 39 homers and 103 RBI.
—Cruz: .287 batting average, .915 OPS, 27 doubles, a triple, 43 homers and 105 RBI.
—Seager: .278 batting average, .859 OPS, 36 doubles, three triples, 30 homers and 99 RBI.
“Our ability to score runs may be a little bit different than I thought it was going to be,” Servais said. “I thought we could do a little bit more of the creating runs with certain parts of our lineup. When we were really good this year, that’s what we did. When we weren’t as good, we didn’t do it.”
Seattle finished third in the AL in runs scored at 4.74 per game and second in homers with 223. The team on-base percentage of .326 was fifth and above the league average and the OPS of .756 also was fifth-best. But the Mariners were poor in situational hitting, with far too many strikeouts, and got inconsistent offensive production from shortstop, left field and catcher.
“We were there till the end,” Cano said. “I’m proud of these guys. We fought till the end.”