Late Summer Is For Spoilers
12:37 PM EDT on August 30, 2023
There's nothing quite like scoreboard-watching this time of year. The temperatures have dropped a little; all your games and at-bats matter; and so do those updates on your playoff competition, whether delivered through phones or the out-of-town scoreboards or a quick highlight on the cable broadcast. It forces your brain to work in two directions at once, providing relief amid disappointment or lacing victory with frustration. It can be overwhelming, but the good kind of overwhelming.
If you can get all that mental exercise from a standard two-team race, then scoreboard watching a three-team divisional battle, with a first-round bye on the line, ascends to some obscure fifth dimension of baseball intensity. These games are calm and organized enough for the average human to consider two at once. But three? For a possibility of eight different winning or losing scenarios every night? And then you throw in the various wild card possibilities? That's where the Mariners, Astros, and Rangers find themselves as August nears its close.
The Twins are going to be the worst of the American League division winners—you could have guessed that in April—which means the victors of the West and East will each get a pass through the first round of the playoffs. In the AL East, it'll come down to the upstart Orioles vs. the tenacious Rays. But the West is entirely up for grabs. The Seattle Mariners, at the end of an all-time great month of baseball for themselves and for Julio Rodríguez specifically, have battled back from an underwhelming first half to 75-57. The Texas Rangers, who built up a rock-solid lineup after years of irrelevance, have suffered a nauseating roller coaster of an August but are seemingly steadying themselves with three wins out of their last four, and are also 75-57. The Houston Astros, far more experienced in high-pressure crucibles than either of their competitors, reunited with Justin Verlander at the deadline to shore up a bit of a scattershot group that nevertheless holds a 76-58 mark.
It's basically a three-way tie, and at the moment that's largely the fault of the Oakland Athletics. Yeah. Those guys. Some early power in Boston gave the Astros a 6-2 win over the Red Sox. And in Queens, eight innings of shutout pitching and a couple of key hits were enough to carry the Rangers to a 2-1 win over the Mets. But nobody, on paper, had an easier job ahead of them on Tuesday than the Mariners, who were not only flattening everyone that stood in their way but also had won eight of eight against the A's, including a 7-0 breeze on Monday.
But Rodríguez, dealing with an annoying little foot injury, didn't play after driving in three runs on four hits the previous night. And the Mariners' planned starter, George Kirby, got sick and couldn't go. And Ty France, starting first baseman, had to exit after two innings because he hurt his hand trying to field a spiked pickoff. It was that kind of night for Seattle.
In front of a massive home crowd, recently acquired replacement arm Luke Weaver showed signs of unreadiness, allowing two homers on meaty pitches to put his hitters in an early 3-0 hole. But even an ace-level start wouldn't have salvaged the Mariners' flimsy bats on this night. In the bottom of the fourth, Seattle walked one run in but left the bases loaded on a José Caballero pop out. And after a series of listless attempts, they squandered a pair of hits in the ninth, as Eugenio Suárez struck out with a chance to tie or walk it off.
“Stuff happens,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said afterward. “We play so many games. We’ve been on such a hot streak where everything kind of has gone our way. So (there’s) going to be a little bump in the road, a little adversity.”
The scoreboard-watching for the Mariners ended early on this particular night, since the Rangers and Astros both began their games two-and-a-half hours prior. And you could feel the pressure of their wins bearing down on the Mariners' short-lived division lead, never more so than on that lonely run in the fourth, when the crowd was living and dying based on the boundaries of the strike zone. Just close your eyes and listen to that build and release.
Everything that's beautiful about late-summer baseball is contained in those few pitches. Tragically, it's a window into what A's players and their fans are being forced to miss out on because of the front office's abusive relationship with Oakland. But it's also a sign of respect for both the Rangers and Astros—a tip of the cap to their day of success backed with the understanding that the home boys will have to be better. And more importantly than anything else, it's an act of love for this Mariners team that's roped everyone in with these win-filled weeks. In April, May, June, and even July, people typically go to the ballpark just to have a nice time watching some baseball. But if you're lucky enough to be in a contending city, the atmosphere starts to shift in August. The slumps deliver more pain. The bullpen management is easier to second-guess. And a fourth-inning at-bat against the worst team in the league can start to carry significance. There are rare, special moments toward the end of summer when you can convince yourself that one pitch really will affect the outcome of the season. And every once in a while, after 162 games are in the books, you'll find that you were right.
There's too much time and too many games left to say if one loss to Oakland will keep Seattle from winning the AL West. But what I like most about this particular moment is knowing that in less than two weeks the A's will be back on the road in Arlington and then Houston, trying to mount the same kind of challenge, in front of similarly tense and energized fans, that they gave Seattle on Tuesday. This time of year is about the contenders. But it's also for the spoilers.