Eight days ago, my girlfriend and I traveled to Houston, Texas to watch two baseball games between the Seattle Mariners and the Houston Astros. You can scroll down and read the last two posts on this blog for some context about the Mariners’ 13-year playoff drought and the magnitude of the games we were facing. When we arrived in Houston for last Saturday’s game, Seattle had just won 10-5 on Friday night and stood a half-game out of post-season position. Chasing Kansas City and Oakland as they’ve done for most of September, the Mariners were scoreboard-watching and preparing for one of their best resurgent pitchers, Chris Young, to shut down the Astros.

We were in the best seats I’ve ever been in for a Major League Baseball game, purchased secondhand on the somewhat cheap through StubHub since most Houston fans had given up on one of the lowliest teams in baseball during their penultimate and ultimate home contests. So we had a great view of the field, the M’s dugout, even the out-of-town scoreboard as it piled up good news.

The scoreboard around gametime, featuring a loss by Kansas City and a near-loss by Oakland.

The scoreboard around gametime, featuring a loss by Kansas City and a near-loss by Oakland.

Then, the M’s got drubbed. 10-1. It was horrifying and hopeless as the Astros hit homer after homer after homer, chasing the starter and abusing the long reliever they brought in to mop up. At least we were coming back tomorrow, we knew. And the Royals and A’s lost so we were staying just a game out of the first Wild Card and a half-game out of the second. It was still possible for us to leave Houston in playoff position.

In the Sunday matinee, with the roof closed, the Mariners actually had a lead, 3-2 in the 5th, then carried a slim 4-3 deficit into the bottom of the 7th. Hisashi Iwakuma, their second-best pitcher, had racked up 8 strikeouts even in the absence of the K-meter we were considering making on posterboard for the broadcast. He was in the dugout by the time Yoervis Medina threw a pitch to Jake Marisnick, he grounded it in front of the plate and the catcher threw him out. End of inning.

And then they called it back. The third-base umpire signaled that he thought Marisnick had fouled it off his foot even though the home plate umpire right in front of the play had ruled it fair. The home plate umpire changed his decision, called Marisnick back to the plate, and three pitches later, he hit the ball over the left field wall for a 3-run homer. The M’s wound up losing by a final of 8-3.

We drove home from Houston despondent. The Royals had already won and Alex’s phone told us about halfway back to New Orleans that the A’s had won in a walk-off in extra innings. We had lost ground against one of the worst teams in the AL, lost ground in two great sets of seats in the only live Mariners games we were going to see this year, lost ground when the opportunities were golden with our great pitching staff.

But everything was on the Toronto series. Seven games to go, only a game and a half out. Four in Toronto, three at home against the best team in baseball, the LA Angels of Anaheim (California). Toronto was basically eliminated and giving up. I dutifully watched the first two games of the Toronto series on MLB TV.

Monday: Blue Jays 14, Mariners 4
Tuesday: Blue Jays 10, Mariners 2

In the midst of the 7-run 5th inning in the latter game, I gave up. I made it official, like everything is these days, by putting it on Facebook:

Good season, Mariners. Maybe next year you can handle the pressure of the playoff race in the last week of the season.
-23 September 2014

It had been Felix Hernandez’s start, the man who is all but a mortal lock for his second Cy Young Award this year. It was the worst start of his entire 10-year career. 2,055 innings and he has his worst five in Toronto at what looked like the end of a long-shot playoff race.

It was totally and completely obvious that the pressure had gotten to the M’s. They were pressing. They were trying too hard. They were not having fun, unable to relax. And baseball is, fundamentally, a game. Yes, it requires patience and talent and precision and skill, but it also requires you to treat it like a game. You have to want to be out there, not dreading that every next pitch could spell your doom if you’re not perfect.

Doom it was. I barely even cared about watching Wednesday’s game. It was 0-0 when we went to get food in the 3rd inning and it was still 0-0 in the bottom of the 8th when we got back. The batter at-bat when we came in the door, who we first saw, hit a bloop single and knocked in the first run of the game. It was suddenly 1-0, Jays, spoiling Taijuan Walker’s heroic start of 7 2/3rds shutout innings. The M’s got the first runner on in the top of the 9th, pinch-ran with their speedster and my favorite new Mariner, James Jones, only to have him picked off for the first time this year. I thought that I couldn’t have my heart broken by this team anymore. After all, I’d given up the day before! But somehow, events conspired to break my heart in a game I’d even decided to not really watch. Blue Jays 1, Mariners 0. Chances beyond over.

At that point, the M’s were on the very brink of mathematical elimination. They were 3 games behind both KC and Oakland with 4 games left to play. To win a playoff spot outright, they would have to be perfect and the Royals and A’s would have to lose everything. To tie, there would be one game to give in that equation, exactly one game the M’s could lose OR the Royals/A’s could win.

At that point, I became a lot more circumspect, philosophical, and even detached. The Mariners had lost four straight games by a combined score of 42-10, then capped it with a fifth game of 1-0. They were utterly defeated and hapless. They were on the brink of brinks. The season was over. But I also could read some of the Mariners blogs writing tributes to a surprisingly good season, to unexpectedly good pitching and amazing dividends on the Cano signing, and all these other little factors that objectively made it a way better season than it should have been. And I remembered something that my good friend David Gray told me after the San Francisco Giants’ 103-win season in 1993 in which they missed the playoffs (two years before implementation of the Wild Card would prevent such good teams missing). That he was more invested in baseball and his favorite club that year than any other he could remember, except maybe the 1989 World Series trip, watching such a close race come down to the wire. There is something about baseball as a daily game, a continual opportunity to watch one’s hopes and dreams, and the significance and closeness of how only a baseball game can unfold, that makes one’s entire life in a close race about the team.

And for a Mariners team that hasn’t been in a close race at all since 2007, or this late since 2003, it was worth appreciating. Savor this baseball, keep watching till they’re officially done. You don’t know when, even with a young and talented core of players coming back next year, you’ll have this chance to care this much about baseball again. And caring this much, even with the losses and the heartbreak, is fun. It’s exciting. It matters. It feels like something. And feeling, emotionally, is probably about the only reason I do much of anything. So I decided to watch every inning, just in case.

Alex even asked me why I was watching when she came home to see the game on, asking if I hadn’t given up. I had to explain how epic a comeback would be if they did it, how I couldn’t miss that, just in case. ESPN put the odds of the Mariners making the playoffs at 0.1%. But it was a chance.

Thursday. The Mariners won in Toronto, finally, salvaging a game and avoiding the sweep, 7-5, on the back of two incredibly clutch and exciting home runs from Logan Morrison. Kansas City won, Oakland lost. Two games out, three to play.

Friday. The Mariners jumped out to a 4-0 lead and clung on as the Angels clawed back, ultimately winning 4-3. Meanwhile, Kansas City won and secured their first playoff berth since 1985. I thought of my old friend Kevin House, who passed away 14 years ago, and what he would be going through now after the Royals clinched their first playoffs since their World Series win when he was 5. The A’s, meanwhile, won as well. Now the best we could do was tie. Two games out, two to play. Catching the A’s would mean an extra one-game playoff before a one-game playoff.

And then yesterday. Saturday. The A’s/Rangers game was paced about an hour ahead of the M’s/Angels contest. We got home from a movie marathon day in time for first pitch, watched an intense pitcher’s duel unfold in Seattle. The Angels took the lead on a fluke infield single off Seager’s glove that rolled just far enough away for the runner to score from second. It looked like Taylor, playing behind him, would have fielded the ball cleanly and ended the inning. But we were only down 1. The M’s managed to strand an Angel at third with no outs in the 6th inning with a strikeout, a short lineout, and another strikeout. Still 1-0.

Then came the 7th inning. Still down 1-0. The Rangers were clinging to a 5-4 lead in the 9th inning, with Dave Sims offering more of a play-by-play of that game than the Mariners’ one during the M’s TV broadcast. Seager got to first base on a leadoff walk. Then Sims shouted when nothing happened in Seattle and announced that the Rangers had just won. A minute later, Logan Morrison doubled into the gap in right-center and Seager was waved home rounding third and slid just ahead of the tag, tying the game, 1-1. There was life.

The M’s managed not to score anymore, but then nail-bit their way all the way to the bottom of the 9th, still 1-1. Single. Walk. Pinch-runner (Jones!) on second. Sacrifice bunt that the Angels threw to third, but were too late to get Jones. Bases loaded, nobody out.

I don’t know if you follow baseball, but you probably do if you’re still reading this particular post. Bases loaded, nobody out is basically a lock to score a run. It’s almost impossible to not score. Your odds are something like 85% of scoring in that situation. Usually the pitching team is happy to just try to get a double-play that scores the run to try to avoid a huge inning. Of course, in the bottom of the 9th, any run will do, so they can’t make that trade-off. So the Angels brought an outfielder in to play infield and then watched, tensely, as two Mariners in a row struck out. And then Austin Jackson flew out to right and we’d squandered a chance to walk off in the bottom of the 9th.

The Angels got a runner to 2nd in the 10th, but didn’t score. The M’s had 1st and 2nd, one out in the 10th, but didn’t score. The Angels got the leadoff man aboard in the 11th, but didn’t score.

We got a one-out double from Brad Miller in the 11th. Then a single from Chris Taylor that was just bloopy enough to only advance Miller to third. First and third, one out. A huge scoring chance, but nothing at all compared to bases loaded, none out. But a huge chance still. Austin Jackson up again. Alex yelled at the computer “just don’t hit into a double play!” And then Jackson grounded a pretty perfect double-play ball to second.

Except that he charged down the line as fast as he’s ever run in his life and the shortstop bobbled the ball just a tiny bit in making the transfer to throw to first and Jackson was safe and the Mariners won and it was over.

We had to hold our breath a little as the Mariners mobbed Jackson and fireworks went off in Safeco Field because this is suddenly the age of replay and they could call it back for a tense review. But they didn’t and it was over and now Sunday’s game mattered.

One game out, one to play.

The Mariners need two perfect outcomes today. They need the Rangers to win and they need to win. They are two binary outcomes and they both need to be exact. And if they win, the reward will be playing tomorrow against Oakland, in Seattle, for a chance to get to the Wild Card game. And if they win that, the reward will be playing Tuesday, in Kansas City, for a chance to get to the Division Series. Which will be against these same Angels. Who, if we get there, we will have just swept.

The Mariners have Felix Hernandez, AL Cy Young favorite, pitching today. And the Rangers may choose to send their best pitcher, scratched yesterday because of a migraine, to the hill for their season finale. The Mariners have a lot of momentum and the A’s must surely be pretty freaked out.

The A’s game starts one hour before the M’s. I will watch that hour, then switch over to the M’s broadcast, trusting Dave Sims to keep me apprised.

This is baseball at its very best. There’s a line in Three Nights in August, one of the best baseball books ever, about feeling nervous, shaky, on the verge of a heart attack, and unable to watch, and this being the way you want to feel every day of your life. (I tried to find the precise quote, which is very well written, but Google basically doesn’t work the way it used to for finding anything unadvertised and relevant and I can’t find my copy on my newly disorganized shelves either, so this paraphrase will have to do for now.) Maybe it’s disproportionately effective thinking for someone who has not only consigned himself to be a Mariners fan, but also just recently was a college debate coach and now aspires to play poker professionally, but this feeling of desiring constant nervous tension is endlessly relatable. I will watch, flailing, writhing, clapping, yelling, and churning. And loving every minute, whichever way it goes.

Brad Miller scores the winning run and looks less excited than I did at this moment.

Brad Miller scores the winning run and looks less excited than I did at this moment.

One game to rule them all. The 162nd game of the year.

Let’s go M’s.

Play ball.