Around the Horn

Contenders or pretenders?

The trade deadline has come and gone and the stretch run is upon us. Aside from the Central divisions, there are close races for division titles and Wild Card berths and there's a lot of meaningful baseball to come in these final two months of the campaign—for some. The question is, will Your Seattle Mariners be among those playing for more than pride as the season winds down?

After last weekend's series against the Texas Rangers, you'd be forgiven for answering "no." The hapless Rangers, who had lost 12 of 13 games since the All-Star break when the Mariners arrived in Dallas-Ft. Worth, ended up winning two of three against the M's in heartbreaking fashion, with walkoff home runs against new closer Diego Castillo and usually-effective fireballer Erik Swanson. It was a blast from the past, and not in a good way, as visions of Heathcliff Slocumb, José Mesa, Bobby Ayala, and the rest of the long, long line of infamous Mariner save-blowers came to mind when those fateful homers sailed over the Globe Life Field wall.

Losing one game to the pathetic Rangers is embarrassing enough. Two straight, in essentially the same way, could have been a brutal blow to the team psyche. Thankfully, however, the M's picked themselves up and stuck it to their next opponent, the very-much better Tampa Bay Rays, to stay in the thick of the Wild Card race. At this writing, Seattle is three games back of Oakland for the second Wild Card berth, six back of Boston's first WC standing, and 7½ back of Houston for the American League West lead. It's not a comfortable position, but it is competitive and plenty hopeful.

After all, they've overcome worse.

In the fabled 1995 season, on August 3rd the Mariners found themselves in third place, 12 games behind the Angels and three games under .500. We all know how that changed—Seattle won 35 of its remaining 54 games and forced a tie-breaking extra game, dramatically beating the Angels at the Kingdome and earning the M's their first title of any kind. In 2016, the M's were 53-52 on August 3rd, eight games behind Texas in the division and five behind the Red Sox for the second Wild Card berth; they went 33-22 the rest of the way. It wasn't enough to make the playoffs (they finished three games out of a WC slot), but it was a terrific run. Conversely, in 2002 the Mariners were in first place on August 3rd, having owned that standing for most of the season; from that point on, though, they played barely .500 ball, dropped 13 games in the standings, and finished ten games back of Oakland and six back of the Wild Card Angels.

7½ back of first? 3 back of the Wild Card? Pshaw.

It's still a climb, to be sure. As the trading deadline slammed down, the M's had not addressed their biggest need—or so it seemed—while the teams ahead of and even with them made significant improvements. Oakland landed Starling Marte. The Yankees got Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo. Boston added Kyle Schwarber. And we know Houston's bullpen got better with Kendall Graveman. The Mariners got...Tyler Anderson. No shade to Anderson, his addition is more than welcome and though he got hosed in his Mariner debut by poor run support and a blown save, we're very pleased to have him; but it wasn't a "get" in the way that, say, Kansas City second-sacker Whit Merrifield would have been.

But they also got this guy Abraham Toro from the Astros. Most folks—including me—didn't think Toro was going to do much to help, at least right now, but so far he's been outstanding. In six games as a Mariner, the switch-hitter has put up a line of .429/.500/.857. Obviously, that's not sustainable, but it is enough to make me reconsider: maybe Toro is the significant immediate infield upgrade we all wanted after all. He's relatively inexperienced at second base, but he's looked just fine out there, more able than Shed Long at the position. And Graveman was replaced with Castillo, who can still erase those comparisons to failed closers past by just pitching to his established ability.

Much depends, of course, on rebound performances from starting pitchers Marco Gonzales and Yusei Kikuchi. Gonzales has made big strides in his three starts since the All-Star break and, while not quite back to his old self, looks to be on his way there; Yusei got hammered in his first start of the second half, but struck out a career-high 12 Oakland A's in his next before turning in a middling effort in his last game. With those two guys pitching at least adequately along with Anderson, Chris Flexen, and Logan Gilbert, it's all going to be up to that relief corps that's been so good for Seattle all year long (save for the now-departed Rafael Montero).

Yes, depending on rookies Jarred Kelenic and Cal Raleigh makes this a tougher gambit than it would otherwise be with experienced players. But we may yet see Kyle Lewis return from injury to ease that challenge some, and either or both of those two guys may yet catch fire once they've acclimated more to The Show. Or, they could continue to flail and scuffle. But regardless, the M's are making a statement here in 2021.

And a lot can happen from August 3rd through season's end.

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