On August 27, 2007 the Seattle Mariners welcomed the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to Safeco Field. The division-leading Halos were 76-54, while the M’s sat in second place with a 73-55 record. The gap was narrow, and the potential reward was huge: the Mariners could play themselves into first place with only a month to go, while the Angels could push their closest competition way out of the picture. It was, understandably, hailed as the most important Mariners series in years. Meaningful baseball, in August.
This is the last I’m going to write about that game, and that series. John Lackey spun a shutout, Miguel Batista did not, and the Mariners were swept right out of the playoff race. That series was an opportunity to make a statement, and sure enough, the Mariners made a statement. They stated that they were not very good and that the division belonged to Anaheim. Not the statement anyone wanted them to make, but a statement nonetheless.
Fast forward to August 11th, 2014, with the Seattle Mariners welcoming the Toronto Blue Jays to Safeco Field. Both teams came into the game just barely outside of the playoff picture, with only a game and a half between themselves and the
Kansas City Royals Detroit Tigers. This was, then, an opportunity to make a statement.
Here we are, spending Tuesday morning basking in the glow of an 11-1 win. The Mariners’ biggest game in seven years was played in front of 41,000 fans, some in yellow and some in blue, and in the end it was a blowout. Felix got to pitch under a huge spotlight, and he responded with a performance that has thrown him into the thick of the AL MVP debate. Forget that 2007 series against the Angels – this was more reminiscent of the 2014 Super Bowl.
In hindsight, maybe we’ll see that these teams weren’t really that evenly matched at all. The Blue Jays, for as far as their lineup has taken them, are currently without Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Lawrie, and Adam Lind. They never did anything about second base, and so on days when Jose Reyes needs to rest they’re forced to run out Steve Tolleson, Munenori Kawasaki, and Danny Valencia as the starting infield. As opposed to, you know, only using two of those guys every day. Oh yeah, and Juan Francisco is the first baseman, when he’s not splitting DH with Nolan Reimold.
Maybe we’ll look back and see that the 2014 Toronto Blue Jays just weren’t that good of a team. Maybe this is the tipping point. Maybe they’re the 2007 Mariners, and the 2014 Mariners are the 2007 Angels. Maybe this is the start of something big. A huge win, in the season’s most pivotal game, and then what? Unstoppable momentum? The World Series?
Felix Hernandez took the hill in front of a crowd that was largely there in hopes of seeing him fail. Not that Blue Jays fans actively, let alone maliciously, root against the King, but the people in blue certainly didn’t want the home team to win. Toronto may be all the way on the other side of the country, but there’s a lot of… Torontoians? In Vancouver? How does this work? Why doesn’t Vancouver support the MLB team that’s an hour and a half away? What’s so cool about the Toronto Blue Jays? Whatever the case, Felix kind of rubbed it in a lot of people’s faces by doing what he did.
What he did was dominate, as he’s done for so, so many games in a row. You all know the streak he’s working on right now: seven or more innings, two or fewer earned runs. Last night was the sixteenth such start in a row, and by now the previous record is weeks in the rearview. Seven innings, eight strikeouts, no walks, and three hits, with the only Toronto run coming on a Jose Bautista solo homer. Felix outdid himself, even though that’s getting more and more difficult with each passing game.
Today we woke up to a cloudy August sky and a Mariners team that could end the day with the same record as the Detroit Tigers. We woke up to articles and blog posts wondering if Felix was now a better choice for AL MVP than Mike Trout. Nobody’s arguing about the AL Cy Young this year – that’s a 1.95 ERA, to go with MLB’s second-most innings pitched – but now people are wondering whether Felix and Robinson Cano are going to end up hurting each other’s MVP cases due simply to proximity. This, in short, is more than Jack Zduriencik ever could have dreamed of while building this team over the winter.
When Cano scored on Kyle Seager‘s second-inning sacrifice fly, the deep exhale heard throughout Safeco Field was
40,000 20,000 relieved fans receiving assurance that this wouldn’t be another 1-0 loss. When Mike Zunino‘s fly ball fell just fair, scoring Kendrys Morales, the place went crazy. With Felix on the hill, 2-1 feels safe. But not the “safe” that means “calm,” not by any stretch.
Remember how the Mariners went weeks and weeks without scoring seven runs in a game? They’ve now scored seven or more three times in the last week: Wednesday, Thursday, and yesterday’s sixth inning. Cano’s leadoff blast into Edgar’s Cantina got things going. Two outs later it was Cano again, doubling off the top of the wall to a backdrop of thunder and lightning to make Dustin Ackley the seventh Mariner to cross the plate that frame.
If this whole game is to be the defining moment of the 2014 season, then the bottom of the sixth represents where we hope things end up. If the season goes as that inning went, then the Mariners are the hottest team in the world and a legitimate threat come October. We want to live that sixth inning. In a sense, that inning is what we’ve been waiting for since 2001, a rare and crazy gift that by now we thought we’d never receive.
It was Mike Zunino’s higher-than-the-foul-poles triple. It was Endy Chavez‘s out-of-nowhere muscle double. It was Brad Miller vs. Brad Mills, complete with a triple into the corner. It was Austin Jackson stealing second and scooting home when Ackley singled. It was a humid Safeco Field shaking from the sound of thunder, while fans hollered at the sight of Cano at the plate, illuminated by the glow from a bolt of lightning. It was Cano missing his second homer of the inning by inches. It was Felix Hernandez, AL MVP candidate, walking through the glowing rain to take the mound after a long layover.
Seattle has had it’s big baseball moments over the last few years. Felix threw a perfect game in this stadium only two short years ago, and the resulting promotion saw a packed stadium shoulder-to-shoulder in yellow King of Perfection shirts. But even though that night was riotously entertaining, the Mariners were just playing it out down the stretch. Last night was a huge win with playoff ramifications. For the Seattle Mariners. Who are trying to make the playoffs.
Chris Young and J.A. Happ go at it tonight at 7:10. Just like that, it’s time for another game. Yesterday probably hasn’t fully sunk in yet, and who knows when (or if) it ever will. But what’s done is done, and the Mariners are now in a better position because of it. All they can do now is keep winning. If they can do that, the reward could be tremendous.