Tracy Ringolsby

Mariners navigating difficult path to postseason

Club tied for second AL Wild Card, faces tough remaining schedule

Mariners navigating difficult path to postseason

SEATTLE -- The Mariners would appear to have the roughest road to the postseason among the six teams in the running for the final two American League playoff spots. Not that they care. They seem to relish the challenge. Seattle answered the doubters all season long, and it added another line to the resume by opening a weekend series against Oakland with a 4-2 victory at Safeco Field on Friday night.

That pulled the Mariners into a tie with the Royals for what would be the second AL Wild Card, and it left them just a half-game back of the fading A's, who are finding that just when it appears things are starting to perk up, another black cloud hovers overhead.

The Athletics seemed to be getting healthy on Friday night. Sean Doolittle was given medical clearance to return to the bullpen and the closer role, and Nick Punto was in the lineup for the first time since a right hamstring strained sidelined him on Aug. 2. By the end of the third inning, however, Geovany Soto was out with a strained muscle in his side, forcing manager Bob Melvin to insert his pitcher into the batting order because Derek Norris, the only healthy one among the A's four catchers, had been in the lineup as the designated hitter.

The Athletics now find themselves with an 11 1/2-game deficit in the AL West to the Angels, the farthest they have been out of first place since July 2, 2012, and their 12th loss in the last 15 games continued a second-half fade that has seen a 3 1/2-game lead disappear amid a 25-32 stumble.

And on Saturday night, the A's return to Safeco to face Felix Hernandez, who is 19-7 lifetime against Oakland, including 4-0 with a 2.15 ERA in five starts this year.

The Mariners? Well, they are still a half-game back of the A's, but they have taken control of their own destiny by at least sharing the second Wild Card with the Royals, and they are starting to see signs of life from Kendrys Morales, who delivered the opposite-field home run that provided the final margin of victory in the sixth inning Friday.

Morales has only hit .217 in his 43 games since being acquired from the Twins, but he does have three home runs and six RBIs in the last six games, and has provided a mental lift by moving into the cleanup spot between the left-handed bats of Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager.

"He stretches out our lineup," said Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon. "He brought respect to the lineup. It gives our guys some confidence. You can't measure that in numbers. He's helped quite a bit."

The schedule would seem to show the Mariners are going to need some help down the stretch. Yes, they share that second Wild Card with the Royals, but they have 13 of their final 16 games against teams in postseason contention.

The lone exception is a three-game visit to Houston as a part of a Rand McNally road trip that opens with on Monday with four games against the Angels, then takes the M's to Houston for three and Toronto for four games before a season-ending three-game visit to Safeco Field by the Angels.

None of the five other contenders for the final AL playoff berths have fewer than six home games, and Oakland opens a nine-game homestand on Monday before finishing the season with a four-game visit to Texas to face a Rangers team that has a worst-in-baseball record of 55-92.

"We have a wonderful plane," said McClendon. "We travel first class. We do what we have to do. The schedule is what it is."

Besides, Seattle has been road warriors. With the Mariners' win on Friday, they climbed back to .500 (38-38) at Safeco, the only non-winning home record among the 16 Major League teams with winning records. They, however, are 42-28 on the road, a .600 winning percentage that is the best in the big leagues.

And Seattle has answered the challenge of facing the best teams. The Mariners are 43-28 against teams with winning records, just 37-38 against teams who are .500 or worst. And while they have won eight of their last 12 games, three of the losses have come against the Astros (two) and Rangers (one).

"I told my guys, 'This is simple, this is playoff baseball,'" said McClendon. "'Averages, slumps, throw them out the window. This is about having good at-bats. It's about having believing in each other.'"

It's about the Mariners facing what would seem to be the most challenging schedule in baseball in the next 16 days, and looking for a way to turn that into a path into the postseason.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for Read his blog, Write 'em Cowboy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.