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Every fan dreams of their team being involved in a playoff race late into September and, if all breaks right, October. Fans of the Seattle Mariners haven’t felt such elation since 2007, and even then the Mariners team in question was noticeably flawed and a considerable underdog. If I’m remembering right, they were out of it with over a week left to play, too, so really it’s been a decade. One whole decade has passed since the last truly good Mariners team, yet here we are, in late September 2013, and wouldn’t you know it, the Mariners are involved in a pennant race. Or, I should say, were involved, because as of tonight the Mariners have officially had an immediate effect on the AL wild card chase.
The Mariners got their playoff hands dirty by eliminating the Kansas City Royals from wild card contention. In standing between a good team and a spot in the play-in game, the Mariners got a big ol’ whiff of not-the-playoffs, which, incidentally, smells a lot like the last ten Mariners teams. But what these Mariners also got was the right to accurately claim that they played a role in the playoff race. Never mind the fact that the Royals have been contending on the periphery of relevance for months, or that all the non-September games played against recent contenders count just the same as games played this month. This is a post that uses “Mariners” and “playoffs” in the same sentence, and that alone should get your heart pumping. Imagine the possibilities! Maybe next year!
Hisashi Iwakuma turned in a typical brilliant effort in his last start of the season, throwing eight shutout innings and striking out nine with only four hits and a walk. He now has season totals, and these are them: 219.2 innings, 7.58 K/9, 1.72 BB/9, 48.7 GB%, 2.66 ERA, 3.44 FIP, 3.28 xFIP, 69 ERA-. That ERA is third in the American League, by the way, trailing only the amazing Bartolo Colon and Anibal Sanchez. His ERA- is fourth-best, behind the aforementioned two and Yu Darvish. Oh yeah, and his K/BB of 4.29 is the league’s fifth best.
It’s an open question as to who will place higher in Cy Young voting, Iwakuma or Felix. By just about any measure they’ve been two of the best pitchers in the league. Felix is going to make $25 million dollars a year, give or take, for the rest of recorded history, give or take. Iwakuma signed a two-year, $14 million deal just over a year ago, and this year alone he has been worth all of it and more. He’ll pitch next year as a bargain, too, and the year after that he has a team option that will almost certainly be picked up barring injury. At some point another extension may become necessary, but until then, Iwakuma will continue providing extraordinary value on a bargain contract.
Hisashi Iwakuma is a bona fide ace. Hisashi Iwakuma has a chance to be one of the best starting pitchers ever to make the leap from NPB to MLB, and he’s a Seattle Mariner. You know how happy we are to have Felix Hernandez? Of course you know, you love him and I love him. In Felix and Kuma, the Mariners have an absolutely elite front of the rotation. Sorting by WAR, Felix is fifth amongst pitchers at 5.9 and Iwakuma is twenty-third at 3.9. That figure for Kuma doesn’t count this outing, by the way. The only other teams with two starting pitchers in the top twenty-three are the Rangers, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers (who have four!!), and while pitcher WAR is hugely imperfect and the cutoff is super arbitrary, I think this gets the point across. The Mariners are in select company with their two aces.
Great as he is, Iwakuma can’t win baseball games all by himself. Not in an American League park, anyway, and that’s where Mike Zunino comes in. Zunino, as you know, wasn’t even supposed to be here today. Maybe right now in a different organization he’d have just earned his September call up, but this is the Mariners organization, and the Mariners organization sometimes blurs the line between Tacoma and Seattle. Mike Zunino hasn’t had a good season as a major leaguer, but that’s because he’s a prospect playing against major leaguers. In this game, Zunino played like a major leaguer, smacking two solo home runs. The first came against Ervin Santana in the fifth to open a nice inning that was capped with a Kyle Seager double that scored Brad Miller and Nick Franklin. Miller bunted a single into reliever Will Smith in the seventh, who threw errantly to score Dustin Ackley from second. Smith finished his night by allowing Zunino’s second home run, which was directly preceded by a Michael Saunders home run.
Mariners six, Royals zero. The Mariners may not be going to the playoffs, but hey, neither are the Royals. Haw haw, the Royals. The Mariners have two aces under contract for at least the next few years, and one of them is under a very team-friendly contract. The Royals have one more season of James Shields, zero more seasons of Ervin Santana, and no Wil Myers anywhere to be seen. It’s easy to look at these two teams and think “dammit the Mariners are the Royals,” but who knows. They’re not the Royals yet. And while this has been a winning season for the Royals, remember the 2007 Mariners? The 2009 Mariners? Teams don’t automatically build on their winning campaigns. The Royals may never be this good again.
The Mariners just took two of three from the Royals, outscoring them fifteen to six in the process. The kid was brilliant and the ace was brilliant. The Royals are going to miss the playoffs because the Mariners shut them out for eighteen consecutive frames. Believe big.