The M's came home from their up-and-down road trip and arguably faced their most important homestand of the year. It's 12 games long (their longest of the year), and with two off days built in, it would give them the chance to get the rest that they desperately needed. Furthermore, the Pirates and Reds were coming in, two teams they should have no problems handling. The timing of this homestand was the luckiest break for the M's all season, and it was imperative that they capitalized. If they did, they would at least hang tough in the AL West, if not gain some ground on the Angels. If it didn't go well, the M's pennant dreams could be kissed good-bye.
Ok, so there are three games left in the homestand, but as long as the M's grab one game out of three with the Blue Jays, the stand will be a huge success. They won two out of three against both the Pirates and Reds, and they just had potentially their best series of the year against the Red Sox. In game one, they flat-out outplayed Boston. Then, in game two, they matched the BoSox offense blow for blow, with Richie Sexson's opposite-field muscle shot being just enough (thanks to knock-out performances from George Sherrill and J.J. Putz). Finally, yesterday the M's played their grittiest game of the year. Matsuzaka had no-hit stuff, and the M's mustered only a few measly hits. However, as luck would have it, they were strung together just right to produce one run. On the other hand, the Red Sox didn't have many problems getting runners aboard, but getting them home was another story. For the M's pitching staff, each inning was like a bull ride on Boston's offense, and each inning they somehow held on for eight seconds.
Red Sox fans can point to a plethora of reasons that their team should have won yesterday's game. Since when does that offense strand so many baserunners? The strike zone wasn't good at all. Jose Lopez got a good piece of that Joel Pineiro fastball, but if it was just out of Manny Ramirez's reach, is there any doubt that ANY other left fielder would have caught that ball? What was Terry Francona thinking not pinch-hitting for Julio Lugo in eighth with the potential winning run in scoring position, and then pinch-hitting for him in extra innings? Admittedly, the M's caught plenty of breaks in the game, and given that their hasn't been a bigger celebration at second base since "The Double," I think even the M's players had a sense that they really had stole one from the best team in the AL.
However, since 1995, the M's haven't been the luckiest team in baseball. They won over 90 games in 2002 and 2003, and didn't make the playoffs either year. They won 116 in 2001, but they couldn't get out of the ALCS. For a stretch starting with Ryan Anderson and ending with Travis Blackley, seemingly every Mariner pitching prospect had massive arm problems. It's nice to see the M's catch a few breaks. Honestly, it's been a long time since the M's have gotten this lucky. Not only did they steal yesterday's game against the Red Sox, but somehow the Royals swept the Angels, beating them 1-0 yesterday in a game in which the Angels got 10 hits! That win was even more improbable than the M's one.
Seriously, this homestand could not be going any better. For six straight days the M's have played for crowds of at least 35,000, and outside of the 16-1 drubbing against the Reds Friday night, they have played some of their finest ball of the year. It's the kind of stretch that can't help but infuse a little energy in the team and the fans.
When October rolls around, I still don't think the M's will be playing. However, they are going to be one of the last teams eliminated. The brutal stretch of games they had to play thanks to the snowed-out series in Cleveland looked like a bunch of nails in this season's coffin (if not bolts), but the M's weathered the storm and have come out of it a tough, rugged team. For all the grief that Hargrove takes for his placid (to put it nicely) approach to managing, it's working with this group of guys, probably because energy is being provided by the youthful exuberance that Betancourt, Lopez, and others are bringing to the ballpark every day. In '04, '05, and the start of '06, the whole team looked like zombies as they played the game. Now, there's fire, passion, and joy in the way that they play. That all boiled over as Lopez was mauled at second base yesterday, and it was a great sight to see. This team really believes it can do anything, even though pretty much everybody else (including myself) doesn't believe that. It's a situation vaguely reminiscent of 1995, though I stress vaguely. Still, even a faint shadow of '95 is something worth getting excited about.