- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Well, there is always the wild card.
This week's three games against the Angels represented Seattle's first meaningful late-season series in four years, and thus were much anticipated. Sellout crowds packed the stadium. Seattle Mayor Greg Nichols declared Monday "Mariners Monday." People were so excited that even singer Michael Buble (who grew up in nearby Vancouver, British Columbia) gave a score update during his concert Tuesday and told fans that the real reason they came to see him was "because you couldn't get tickets to the game."
So what happened? The Mariners got shut out by a pitcher with strep throat the first game, blew a 5-0 lead the next and got whipped by a teammate's little brother the final game. The Angels and Mariners were close enough in the standings before the series that Seattle pretty much only needed to win one of the three games to feel decent about its division chances heading into the final month. Instead, the Mariners find themselves a daunting five games back and facing the most demanding road trip since the Joads packed up the family truck in Oklahoma.
"The expectations were so high," manager John McLaren said. "We were coming home to a full house, and then we lost three straight games and didn't get anything done. And everyone is saying, 'There go the Mariners.' I don't believe that at all. We just need to get straightened out, and we will."
The Angels, meanwhile, seem so straightened out that Al Gore looks like he's slouching in comparison. Only Boston has a better record than Anaheim, and just barely. The Angels have two possible 20-game winners in the rotation and five possible .300 hitters in the everyday lineup. The Angels are 11-4 against the Mariners this season. Historians are still researching the subject, but it is believed that Vladimir Guerrero hasn't made an out against Seattle since joining the American League.
Did the Angels make a statement with the sweep?
"I'll have you say it," Gary Matthews Jr. said. "I'll let our play speak for itself."
With a month of games left, neither McLaren nor Angels manager Mike Scioscia described the series as do-or-die or make-or-break (or any other metaphor) for either team, but the Seattle manager did say the Mariners need to play at least .500 on the upcoming 10-game road trip to Cleveland, Toronto, New York and Detroit. On the one hand, that's a tough set of teams. On the other hand, at least they don't have Miss South Carolina mapping the route.
"As the season goes on, [the clock] is ticking," McLaren said. "We need to pick it up in all phases of the game."
Ichiro explained how the Mariners can bounce back.
"[We need] to play at our normal ability," Ichiro said through an interpreter. "In times of pressure, sometimes you get too emotional. You can see that in this team at times. What is important is, when the pressure is on, to be able to play normally. That is what is important. It's not a problem to be emotional, but it is a problem when you lose your cool.''
He refused to cite examples, but there were plenty. Runners were picked off and thrown out at third base, McLaren was tossed in the first inning Monday, batters swung at bad pitches and in one game, Ichiro almost threw the ball to the backstop in a clear attempt to show off his arm strength rather than simply hitting the cutoff man.
Everyone is saying, 'There go the Mariners.' I don't believe that at all. We just need to get straightened out, and we will.
--M's manager John McLaren
The starting pitching wasn't very good, either, with the three starters each getting hit hard. Felix Hernandez allowed 13 hits and seven runs in Wednesday's 8-2 loss as fans still wait for him to develop into a proven ace.
"At times the Angels looked a little too comfortable up there,'' McLaren said.
The one consolation for the Mariners is they left the stadium with a slim lead in the wild card.
"It's too early for us to think about the wild card,'' third baseman Adrian Beltre said. "It's best for us to look at winning the division. We still have games left against them.''
Teams almost never come back from a five-game deficit in September, but one that did was the 1995 Mariners, who were 8½ behind the Angels at this same point that season. As both teams are well aware, Seattle rallied to force a one-game playoff against Anaheim and win the division.
"That's a great club over there, and they'll be there at the end,'' Scioscia said. "We'll have to earn it regardless of whoever we go through.''
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
The Mariners have not given up on winning the AL West, but they have a better shot at capturing the wild card.