“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
- Winston Churchill
Expectations are a double-edged sword. They are the foundation upon which successful teams are built. Without them, a team is just a collections of players. Without them, players are rarely able maximize their physical attributes. Good teams set and exceed expectations, whereas bad teams struggle to instill expectations into their culture.
For the Seattle Mariners’ fanbase, expectations have cratered over the past decade. By 2012, attendance had plummeted by half from a high in 2002, when the Mariners led the league. But it wasn’t just the fans that had tempered their expectations. When one-time prospect Jesus Montero reported to spring training visibly overweight, GM Jack Zduriencik stated, “I have zero expectations for Jesus Montero. Any expectations I had are gone”.
As the losses accumulated over several seasons, expectations surrounding Montero and fellow prospects Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Nick Franklin faded. Was it possible that the Mariners’ had struck out on four top prospects? Even more ominous was that the excitement for the big three, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen had softened as injuries plagued each to some degree.
Indeed, expectations for the 2014 season from both inside and outside the team appeared mixed. And in part, that is why Zduriencik brought aboard second baseman Robinson Cano and manager Lloyd McClendon. Coming from the New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers, Cano and McClendon represented an attempt to infuse winning baseball culture into the organization. The two brought with them expectations not of a team of developing young players, but of a team ready to compete every night in every stadium in the league.
Even before spring training had gotten into full swing, McClendon drew a line in the sand by defending Cano against criticism from Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long. Besides demonstrating that he had his players back, McClendon was announcing that the Mariners were not going to back down from any team. They expected to compete.
It was quickly evident that those expectations were spreading throughout the team. Michael Saunders, who had suffered through some of the team’s darkest days, shared his new perspective before the season, “…we’re going to be fighting coming into September, and September games are going to be meaningful.”
And slowly, the Mariners began winning. They had developed an outstanding pitching staff and were scoring just enough to win their share of games. For the first time in years, the team remained in contention through the summer months. After a scorching August, the team cooled somewhat in September. However, the Oakland Athletics were in the middle of an historic swoon, and it appeared likely that the upstart team from Seattle could secure a wildcard spot.
But as summer turned to fall and the pressure of each series rose, the Mariners’ inexperience began to show. Unable to make up ground on the A’s or the equally green Kansas City Royals, the Mariners were running out of time. Entering the last two series of the year, the Mariners needed to make a move (see “It’s now or next year for the Mariners”). Luckily, they had an in-form James Paxton leading them into the series opener. Paxton, the flame-throwing left-handed rookie, had already pitched in some big games including the season home opener and the Lou Piniella Hall of Fame game.
But this was a different type of pressure. Or to be more exact, pressures.
First, it is relevant that the 25 year old Paxton is a Richmond, BC product selected in the first round of the 2009 draft by the Toronto Blue Jays. After failing to come to terms with the team, however, Paxton opted to return to the University of Kentucky. Unfortunately, the NCAA ruled him ineligible due to his dealings with agent Scott Boras and he ended up playing for the Grand Prairie AirHogs.
Upon re-entering the 2010 draft, Paxton was subsequently chosen in the fourth round by the Seattle Mariners. It was his first trip to Toronto, playing in front of a team and fanbase that he felt he had everything to prove. There may not have been a worse place or situation for Paxton to pitch the biggest game of the season. In his post-game interview, both Paxton and McClendon suggested that he had indeed become too wound up about pitching in front of the team that originally drafted him.
A second pressure was rooted in the hype and expectation that had quickly built around the rookie. In the pre-game show, discussion centered around comments made by his previous opponent C.J. Wilson, who compared Paxton to fellow lefty superstars, Jon Lester and Clayton Kershaw. Suddenly managing expectations had become a real issue for a pitcher with 15 career starts.
But the major obstacle, one that faced every player on this young team was the pressure of a playoff race. The weight of the race and the associated expectations were painfully apparent in the opening game against the Jays. Paxton failed to throw consistent strikes and was generally throwing a little slower than usual at around 93 mph. The few times he did reach 96 mph, were were on pitches that lacked control. In the field, a passed ball by rookie Jesus Sucre, a throwing error by rookie Chris Taylor and balls not handled cleanly by Kyle Seager and Cano revealed a team that was feeling the pressure.
This was in stark contrast to the Jays, who were clearly playing free and easy. Diving catches were made by Jose Bautista and Dalton Pompey followed by an outfield assist also by Bautista. Given a comfortable lead, J.A. Happ attacked the Mariners’ hitters directly all night. The Jays hitters were also swinging with purpose, getting homers from Bautista, Kevin Pillar (his first of the season) and, Anthony Gose (his second of the season)
So the Mariners are playing games in September that mean something. That is a big step from previous years and a sign of progress. However, this is still an inexperienced team learning how to manage the pressures of the stretch run. Although players like Seager, Ackley and Mike Zunino are vital contributors on the field, they are just now gaining their first big game experience. Maybe they will put it together in this last week, or maybe they won’t, but either way it is intriguing baseball to watch. Even though this loss leaves Seattle two games behind both Oakland and KC with six game to play, this team is playing hard and without the safety net of experience. That is among the most important reasons to cheer, emphatically, for this team.
And the reality is, the player who thrives on the pressure of expectation is up next. We are about to learn something about the make-up of Felix Hernandez.