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Originally published September 24, 2014 at 6:54 PM | Page modified September 25, 2014 at 1:57 PM

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Mariners’ feel-good season is having a feel-awful finish

A playoff spot was there for the taking but the Mariners have faltered down the stretch, losing 12 of their past 17 games.

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Seattle Times columnist

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When the Mariners ended their last homestand with two tough losses to the Oakland A’s, manager Lloyd McClendon tried to fend off the doomsday tenor of the postgame questioning.

“We’re going to be OK, guys,’’ he said. “I promise. Trust me.”

But they weren’t OK. The ensuing trip, which mercifully ends Thursday in Toronto, has cemented the undoing of what had been an improbably fun, competitive season.

Barring a miracle like that pulled off by the 2011 Cardinals — who needed a total collapse by Atlanta to sneak into the NL wild card on the final day, making up four games in five days — doomsday is close at hand for the Mariners.

The last vestiges of remote hope surely evaporated Wednesday in Toronto when Taijuan Walker’s gem still resulted in as excruciating a loss as you’ll ever see. That’s five defeats in a row, 12 out of 17, leading to the inescapable conclusion that it just ain’t happening, no matter how many times the Royals and A’s invite them back into the race.

And that leaves a confounding question: How does one evaluate a feel-good season with a feel-awful ending?

Too often nowadays, in all aspects of society, we’re fixated on absolutes. Maybe that’s the social-media culture at work: We have heroes or bums, with little gray area in-between.

The 2014 Mariners, however, are all about gray area. I know that’s not going to satisfy the jilted Seattle baseball fan, understandably seething over the abrupt turn of events.

The playoffs were there for the taking, with both Kansas City and Oakland wobbling to the finish. But the Mariners have stumbled harder, executing a fade that to me gained unstoppable momentum at the precise moment Fernando Rodney walked home the go-ahead run in the 10th inning of a sold-out game against Oakland at Safeco Field.

No need to rehash the gory details since: A split of a four-game series in Anaheim (including a narrow win against a glorified Class AAA team the night after the Angels clinched), two losses out of three in Houston, then two straight blowouts in Toronto setting up Wednesday’s cruel defeat.

The prime culprit down the stretch has been a surprising one: the previously stellar starting pitching, turning yucky at precisely the most inopportune time.

Hisashi Iwakuma went into free fall. Chris Young hit a wall and will be skipped on Thursday. The previously stellar James Paxton flamed out in his biggest start, in his homeland of Canada, no less. And most troubling of all, Felix Hernandez was inexplicably rocked on Tuesday in the sort of crucial pennant-race game everyone had been yearning for him to experience for nearly a decade.

I’ve already seen the blistering tweets and emails (reaching warp speed Wednesday evening), with one underlying theme: Same old Mariners. Typed with an almost visible sneer.

The venom has been startling, but I’ve come up with a theory: The Mariners are a victim, simultaneously, of their own success, and their own failure.

The ballclub’s overachievement in a season of limited expectations caused people to slowly buy back in, to reinvest long-neglected emotional energy. It was an engaging team. Everyone loves a rags-to-riches story, and the longer the Mariners stayed in contention, the higher the expectations rose.

To then see it all crumble, just when a postseason bid seemed more and more plausible, has led to an emotional backlash, a sense almost akin to betrayal.

And that’s the direct result of the cumulative distrust and animosity built up over all these dark years of Seattle baseball. My interpretation is that these Mariners are bearing the brunt of all those Mariners disasters past.

That said, it’s simply not fair to completely write this year off as the same old Mariners, as if mid-April through August never happened.

Here’s where the gray area comes in. They’ve improved by 12 wins so far. That’s real, and not insignificant. They developed a lights-out bullpen, and despite the results of September, the makings of a championship-caliber rotation. There’s a potential jumping-off point here.

But it’s also not right to dismiss the last three weeks as merely an untimely slump. The slide has fully exposed the fatal flaw of this team — one that their pitching staff managed to minimize for much of the season, even though it was still readily apparent to all.

No mystery here. Despite the addition of Robinson Cano and continued emergence of Kyle Seager, the Mariners’ offense is woefully inadequate. I have to think that five months of needing to be nearly perfect to overcome the lack of run support took a toll on their pitchers — mental, if not physical — that finally manifested itself in crunchtime.

We’ll get into more detail later, but Jack Zduriencik will have to address the glaring offensive deficiency in the offseason. If not, the gray area between triumph and disaster will fade to black.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @StoneLarry



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About Larry Stone

Larry Stone gives his take on the local and national sports scene.
lstone@seattletimes.com

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