So, why are we nervous?
Well, for starters, the hometown nine are only one game better than a year ago on this date. At that point, Seattle and Anaheim stood in a virtual tie, one game ahead of Oakland. The A's however, had just won their sixth-straight game and were about to streak by the M's like Ichiro passing Edgar in a 40-yard dash (soon to be followed by Anaheim, playing the role of Mike Cameron in our allegorical footrace).
By the time Art Howe's gang lost another game, the race was effectively over for Lou's boys. On September 15, the first-place Angels (having just won 16 of 17 themselves) led Oakland by a game and Seattle by nine. Although Anaheim let the Mariners creep to within four games with four to play, it was false hope for the boys in blue.
The warning signs are there for another late season collapse by the senior citizens in the Northwest, and have been since the All-Star break: The offense has been fantastically underwhelming, falling to seventh in the AL in runs scored. The starting pitching, a model of consistency and dependability in the first half, has shown signs of fatigue.
Once again, Pat Gillick did not deliver the knight in shining spikes that Mariner players and fans have begged for. Instead, Jeff Nelson was shipped back to the evil empire for publicly biting the hand that fed him (Jeff seemed heartbroken, by the way) and in return, the M's received 230 lbs. of bullpen ballast.
However, fear not Mariner faithful! Here are three big reasons why this year is NOT last year:
The youth movement: Last year, the weary M's were even more dependent upon veterans than they are today. Gil Meche has added youth, filthy stuff and über-Ace potential to the starting rotation. Ryan Franklin in playing Aaron Sele's role so well that you'd almost swear the native Oklahoman was really a Cougar in Mariner's clothing. Rafael Soriano has been nothing short of spectacular, bringing his superhuman right arm in from the bullpen to fire lasers on the black and make dead-red fastball killing All-Stars look like they belong in the Little League World Series (see Garciaparra, Nomar). Speaking of Soriano, are we watching the second coming of Mariano Rivera, circa 1995? If so, will Melvin have the huevos to go to him in the playoffs in a crucial situation?
The newcomers: Last year down the stretch, the M's trotted a fading Ruben Sierra out to left field every night, along with a struggling Jeff Cirillo. Supersub Mark McLemore was on the disabled list through September and the Mariners clearly missed his ability to fill in for either Sierra or Cirillo. This year, Randy Winn has been a solid performer and has been spectacular since the All-Star break. As Winn's stats begin to approach the levels that made him an All-Star last season with Tampa Bay, his value to the team increases dramatically. Rey Sanchez has sparked the team in his time filling in at shortstop for the perennially injured Carlos Guillen. Sanchez' defense has been as solid as was expected but his bat has given the offense an unexpected lift. This effect stands in stark contrast to the non-contribution of last year's equivalent acquisition, Jose Offerman.
The Ichiro factor: As goes Ichiro, so go the Seattle Mariners. Ichiro struggled in the last two months of 2002 to the tune of a .266 batting average, a .331 on base percentage and only 6 stolen bases in 10 attempts. Although he never admitted it, Ichiro's knee injury - suffered while losing a head on collision with the wall down the right field line - clearly slowed him down when the M's needed him the most. Provided that he manages to avoid running headlong into any concrete walls, Ichiro seems poised for an electrifying stretch run.
After winning series from New York and Boston in the past two weeks, the Mariners' post All-Star funk appears to be over and - barring another 20-game winning streak from Oakland - first place is Seattle's to lose. The schedules of the two AL West competitors are essentially identical for the rest of the season, leading up to six of the final nine played head to head. If the season comes down to the final 3 games in SAFECO Field, you can bet that the M's and their fans will be ready to bring home the Division title in style.
Tyler is the latest contributing writer at InsidethePark.com. Give him a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org.