Post-season hope weighs heavily on Seattle Mariners fans

SEATTLE — The familiar sinking feeling returned quickly in the first inning of the first game of the most anticipated Mariners homestand in a long, long time.

The team had entered the Major League Baseball All-Star game in the glory of a 14-game winning streak, and an expectant team suddenly became a bully. After the break, last weekend’s three-game streak against AL West league leaders the Houston Astros should be a litmus test.

Was it finally okay to put real hope in the Seattle Mariners?

blow. With a clean swing, an Astros home run confirmed the answer.

In Friday’s opener, the Mariners’ starter, left-hander Marco Gonzales, had thrown a four-seam fastball that Jose Altuve couldn’t resist: too slow, too close to the heart of the striking zone.

It felt like an omen. As if the Mariners’ wondrous and unexpected winning streak was about to end and soon be replaced by well-founded doubts.

This is baseball. it breaks your heart In the 21st century, no team or city understands this better than Seattle.

Twenty seasons without a postseason appearance, the longest drought of its kind in major American professional sports. The only MLB franchise that never made it to the World Series.

Seattle baseball fans possess two qualities in abundance: dogged, unrewarded loyalty to the Mariners and the sports version of post-traumatic stress disorder. As a Seattle native and longtime Mariners fan who’s spent too many afternoons watching baseball in the dark dampness of the long-gone Kingdome, I can attest to that. In the Pacific Northwest, defeats are taken politely. And when it comes to the Mariners, with deep resignation.

Things didn’t get more ominous until the Friday after Altuve’s homer as the Mariners went batting, determined to even out that tense affair — a home game played to a seldom sold-out midseason crowd — with a run of their own.

The Mariners’ magnetic leadoff hitter, the player almost everyone in the stands wanted to see, had failed to show up. Julio Rodríguez, the 21-year-old phenomenal midfielder who just shot 81 balls over the perimeter fence at the Home Run Derby in Los Angeles, had been left out of the lineup because of a sore wrist.

As I walked through the stands at T-Mobile Park, I could hear a collective sigh of deflation emanating from the crowd.

“It’s such a brand,” Evan Riggs, a longtime fan, told me. “Of course they would go down early. Of course their best player wouldn’t play because he just got injured, probably in the All-Star Game.”

“These are the Mariners.”

I couldn’t have phrased it better.

Through June 20, the Mariners were struggling to a record 10 games under .500. But then they suddenly became baseball’s hottest team – victorious in 22 of 25 games – and came within 10 games of Houston in the pursuit of the AL West crown.

Out of nowhere, the Mariners were suddenly dangling from the abyss of hope.

So it hurt deeply, but also unsurprisingly, as the Astros clinched an easy 5-2 wire-to-wire win on Friday. The pain deepened on Saturday as 39-year-old right-hander Justin Verlander propelled the Astros 3-1 to a second win.

On Sunday, with Rodríguez still injured and off the starting lineup, Seattle fell 6-0 after three innings to lose 8-5. The big series turned out to be an agonizing breakthrough. As it always was.

A quick recap for those who don’t understand the extent of this team’s suffering.

In the 46 years of its existence, no organization in baseball has been worse. Some of the game’s most famous stars have worn a Seattle uniform in their prime — Ken Griffey Jr. tops the list — but the Mariners have only made the playoffs four times, and all in a short window of 1995-2001 .

But these are supposedly the new Mariners. A team trying to break ground and shed a past that most current players had no part in. Seattle fans want to dream big. But we can’t let go completely. We expect the shoe to fall – or a bad wrist to start another losing spiral.

Fans of the series last weekend confirmed my fears:

“Cautious optimism is the best I can do.”

“It’s like we’ve been here before, but every time we get burned.”

“It feels like they may finally make the playoffs. It also feels like they’re probably experiencing a loss spree.”

Then there was that of Dusty Baker, the Astros manager, standing by the batting cage before Friday’s game and asking me how the mood in town was. They’re ready to win big, I told him, but I’m pretty sure your team will have something to say about that.

Baker smiled. “Yes we will.”

He’s less of a fortune teller than used to wielding a real challenger. His Astros are 5-2 this season against the MLB-leading Yankees after winning a doubleheader in Houston last week. Against the Mariners, their relentless precision was reminiscent of a great champion I saw at Wimbledon two weeks ago. Like Novak Djokovic, when Houston puts down the braces, they don’t let go.

I’m almost afraid to dream that the Mariners are on the verge of becoming such a team. Funny how sports can turn “that thing with feathers,” as Emily Dickinson called the hope, into a weight to be shouldered.

In April, I was skeptically certain that Seattle, having built this team with clever offseason moves and created one of the best minor league systems in baseball, could grow past 2021’s score when they last game of the year were eliminated season.

Then came that winning streak where they zoomed past the slow and steady advances that befit charming underdogs.

Now I’m pondering what it will take to completely shatter Seattle’s reputation for being polite losers in aqua leotards. Offal. daring. Words nobody used a month and a half ago.

Management should be heartened by how close the Mariners appear to be in breaking the long cycle of desperate defeats. Lay down the chips and go all-in. Trading deadline for the Major League is August 2nd. Washington’s Juan Soto is on the trading bloc — an extreme rarity because 23-year-old superstars are the most desirable asset a team can have in any sport.

Do something big, something akin to catching up with then 27-year-old Ichiro Suzuki in the early 2000s. Now it’s time to break what feels like a curse. All these talented players in the minor leagues represent nothing but potential. Pack a bunch of ’em in a bushel, add a high-profile starter from the major league team, and make the Nationals an offer they’d refuse.

Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has been talking for weeks about making a sharp, sweeping move ahead of the upcoming trade close. He won’t say what, maintaining a secrecy that only cements the fans’ hold on the doubts that define us.

“We haven’t been in the playoffs for 20 years,” emphasized Dipoto this weekend. “We’re the franchise that hasn’t been to the World Series.”

“Fans shouldn’t trust us until we get there,” he said, and in the next breath praised his team’s carefully calculated path of improvement.

But one of the beautiful qualities of being a sports fan is the way the games allow us to hope for the impossible, even the irrational. An outfield of Rodríguez and Soto is exactly that, but I dream about it anyway and I’m hardly alone.

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