A band of misfits in its truest sense nearly ended the longest playoff drought in Major League Baseball, and could have done a lot more had they gotten in.
Mariners fans will fondly remember the final three games of the 2014 season despite the heartbreak that followed. It was the closest any of them had been to seeing postseason baseball played at Safeco Field in over a decade. Just having competitive and meaningful baseball up until the final game of the year was something to be grateful for.
Coming off a brutal road trip to Houston and Toronto that eventually proved too much to overcome, the Mariners headed into a final three-game set at home against Jerry Dipoto’s AL West winning Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim down two games to the Oakland Athletics for the second and final wild card slot.
Seattle took the first game of the series, 4-3, as the Fernando Rodney Experience made things interesting in the ninth for an unnecessarily dramatic finish; however, the A’s also won in Texas. Then came possibly the most important game of the entire decade for the Mariners: Game 161, with the threat of being eliminated from playoff contention even if they won as long as Oakland handled the lowly Rangers.
There was a faint sense of hope amongst the 32,716 in attendance at Safeco and across the Mariners fanbase that night, but most held the assumption that this would wind up in heartbreak, as most things do with the M’s organization. And they would be eventually right, just not on this particular night.
From the Rangers holding on for a 5-4 win over Oakland and Logan Morrison‘s clutch game-tying RBI double shortly thereafter to Austin Jackson‘s walkoff infield single in extra innings, this was by far the most electrified Safeco Field had been in a long time. Suddenly, a chance to reach the postseason was a real possibility, as a Mariners win and an A’s loss the following day would result in a play-in game between the two for the final wild card.
Of course, that didn’t happen. The Mariners did win, as Félix Hernández capped off a brilliant Cy Young-worthy season with an emotional and dominant finish that ended once news came down that the A’s had beaten the Rangers 4-0.
Oakland moved on to the wild card game, but did so by the skin of their teeth despite jumping out to a 66-41 record by the trade deadline. The Angels, however, continued to hold pace with the A’s and the latter began to hit a downward spiral for the final two months of the year as the Mariners, Indians, Yankees, and Blue Jays inched closer and closer.
By the end of the season, the A’s were clearly not one of the five best teams in the American League despite what their record and playoff status said. They ranked 24th in hitting in the second half of the season, and though they added Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija, and Jason Hammel to their rotation, their pitching numbers regressed and their staff as a whole ranked in the middle of the pack.
The A’s were stumbling into the postseason after looking like one of the league’s juggernauts in the first half, and their season came to an end in fitting fashion. After jumping out to a 7-3 lead over the Kansas City Royals in the wild card game, Lester was blown up and the bullpen behind him crumbled as well. The Royals went on to win that game and eventually the AL pennant, but would lose to the San Francisco Giants in seven games.
To this day, I believe the Mariners would have beaten the Royals in a one-game playoff and potentially move on to even bigger and better things had they gotten in over Oakland. At the very least, it wouldn’t have been the absolute offensive slugfest that it wound up being, and even if it were, the Mariners were better equipped to hold on to a 7-3 lead than the A’s were.
Sure, the Royals were the far better team, fielding the likes of Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, and Salvador Perez. They had the best bullpen in baseball with Wade Davis, Greg Holland, and Kelvin Herrera on the frontlines, and their starting rotation was filled with dependable innings-eaters who kept games close.
But this Mariners team couldn’t care less about that. From scraps, they had built a bullpen that was nearly on par with the Royals’ that year, and featured one of the best one-two punches in baseball atop their rotation with youngsters James Paxton, Roenis Elías, and Taijuan Walker behind them.
Put Félix or Hisashi Iwakuma on the mound at Kauffman Stadium, and the entire 2014 postseason could have drastically changed.
The Mariners didn’t have much star power in their lineup aside from the recently acquired Robinson Canó and draft success Kyle Seager. Their third best player in terms of fWAR was Mike Zunino, who posted a .199/.254/.404 slash line over the course of the year.
Dustin Ackley somehow appeared in 143 games for this team despite his .293 on-base percentage, and guys like Brad Miller, Endy Chavez, Willie Bloomquist, and James Jones found themselves in the lineup fairly regularly.
There was no reason to expect this team to win, but they just kept doing so. And there would have been no reason to expect them to beat the Royals had they gotten in, or even the A’s in a tiebreaker, but this team constantly defied all logic and they had momentum. They were dangerous just for the sole fact that no one really took them seriously.
They were the Cleveland Indians in Major League. A team made of duct tape and Elmer’s glue in Jack Zduriencik’s half-assed attempt to build a ballclub. And they were ours.
You don’t need an abundance of superstars to win in the postseason. Once you reach October, the name of the game is pitching and timely hitting. That’s what pushed Kansas City over the top. Had the Mariners found their way in, they had the pitching staff to go toe-to-toe with anyone and a group of hitters that didn’t produce consistently, but had shown the ability to come through in the toughest of times.
On paper, they were the furthest thing from a good team. But on the field, they were magic. It’s a shame we never got to see them in October.