Felix And A Playoff Start
Welcome to the middle of the biggest Safeco series in more than a decade. One month ago, the Mariners were preparing to begin the biggest Safeco series in more than a decade. Remember that? Remember how big a deal it was at the time? The Mariners were hosting the Blue Jays, and the Blue Jays were one of the wild-card rivals, and the Mariners had Felix prepared to start game one. That was at least the biggest series since Lollablueza, and then the Mariners swept it, and it felt fantastic. It felt like something beyond ordinary meaningful baseball — it felt like transition-meaningful baseball, between the regular season and the playoffs.
It’s funny to look back on that now. It’s funny what time and accomplishment does to perspective. In middle-school English, the big challenging assignments for us were writing 11-sentence paragraphs. Thesis, support, conclusion. We’d build the skeleton of a book, but we’d limit it to a page. High school brought longer papers. College brought longer papers still. Everything got harder and harder, but because of the progression, everything felt similarly hard at the time, and I could always look back on how laughable it was to have been intimidated by a smaller project earlier on. Gotta write this 12-page paper on Elie Wiesel. A decade ago, I wrote a one-page paper on Elie Wiesel.
A month ago, the Mariners played an important series. It was their first truly important home series in a while. That was all very much true at the time, but boy is this ever more important now. In part because the Mariners beat the Blue Jay boss, now they have the opportunity to defeat the Oakland menace. According to FanGraphs, when the Mariners won the first game against the Jays, it lifted their playoff odds a little more than five percentage points. When the Mariners won the first game against the A’s on Friday, it lifted their playoff odds nearly 13 points. So in a sense the game was more than twice as important.
We all know that the leverage is building. God, that Toronto series was a long time ago. When it started, the Mariners were ten games behind the A’s. The A’s were leading the West! The Brewers were leading the NL Central. Chris Davis hadn’t yet been caught for his cheating. People didn’t suspect that the undoing of the A’s was the unloading of Yoenis Cespedes. People didn’t know about the undoing of the A’s yet. It’s a different world we live in today.
In the past, people would say they wanted the Mariners to make the World Series in large part for Dave Niehaus. A more recent sentiment is that people want the Mariners to make the playoffs for Felix Hernandez. People, of course, want the Mariners to make the playoffs for themselves, but when you dive into your imagination, it’s hard not to be carried away by the thought of Felix starting in the playoffs at home in front of a massive Kings’ Court. It’s how you design the ideal playoffs in your mind, in the way that people who haven’t seen the playoffs yet greedily do. Before the playoffs, you try to script them. After the playoffs, you don’t really care, provided there were wins.
We know when the playoffs begin. We know where the Mariners have to be in order to qualify. Officially, there’s a line between the playoffs and the non-playoffs, in that every year, there’s a given number of playoff teams. But, what are the playoffs, but a period of high-leverage baseball games? And what are the Mariners playing right now, if not high-leverage baseball games? The leverage isn’t as high, but how close do you have to be for it to not be silly to suggest you’ve already basically made it? Saturday night — in a couple of hours! — Felix will start a game at Safeco against the A’s. At stake will be a swing in championship odds, as the Mariners and A’s battle for positioning. Behind and around Felix will be 40,000 casuals and fanatics, behaving the same. Officially, this isn’t a home playoff start for Felix Hernandez. Unofficially, there’s not really much of a difference.
I’m fully aware of how that could be construed as loser-talk, the talk of someone who doesn’t remember how the playoffs actually feel. In my defense, I don’t remember how the playoffs actually feel. I also realize that, if the Mariners are still alive in one month, we’ll look back and laugh at how important we thought things were a month earlier. We’d look at this series like we look at the Toronto series. But it’s to the point where every day either kills us or makes us stronger. Things have ratcheted up from last month, and it’s sure as shit not just us who’re aware:
“I told my guys, this is really playoff baseball,” manager Lloyd McClendon said.
Robinson Cano, whose first-inning home run got the Mariners off on the right foot, echoed the same thought, saying the playoffs began Friday for his new club. And he should know, having played in seven postseasons and a World Series with the Yankees.
It’s not the playoffs, because it’s not the playoffs. It’s not the playoffs because, a few days from now, the Mariners visit the Astros. It’s not the playoffs because Michael Saunders is sitting tonight in favor of James Jones, because McClendon thinks Saunders needs a break, even though James Jones sucks. But every day now is crucially important, no matter the opponent. And these games against the A’s are more important still, like late-inning at-bats with runners in scoring position. It’s not the playoffs, but it’s so, so close to the playoffs, and though you could technically be closer to the playoffs without being in the playoffs, the feeling is almost alike. We feel like it’s practically playoff baseball. The players feel like it’s practically playoff baseball. The manager feels like it’s practically playoff baseball. The atmosphere tonight will sound like it’s practically playoff baseball. It’s not the playoffs, but it’s the playoffs. Felix Hernandez is getting the ball.
We’ve all wondered what it would be like to have Felix start a home playoff game. Tonight we won’t find out, and tonight we will find out. A month ago, in that start against Toronto, Felix took the hill before a big court and thousands upon thousands of Jays fans, and he left after seven with a ten-run lead. That felt important then, but it was nothing compared to this. This time there aren’t going to be any Jays fans around.
It can get more intense than this. It can’t by very much. Tonight King Felix starts a playoff game in September.