Wednesday July 27th, 2011

NEW YORK -- Felix Hernandez was out of the game but not out of the dugout. The Mariners' ace, like most starting pitchers, routinely retreats to the clubhouse to ice his arm and take a shower after his work is done. On Wednesday afternoon, however, he lingered on the bench despite exiting after seven innings with a 7-1 lead over the Yankees because the stakes in this one were too high.

Seattle had suffered a franchise-record 17 straight defeats -- one of only 17 losing streaks of that length since the World Series Era began in 1903 -- and Hernandez was determined to see it through to completion, which he did two innings later, as the M's ended three interminable weeks with a 9-2 win.

"That was the first time I did it," Hernandez said of his dugout loitering. "Because I wanted this game so bad.

"It means a lot. 17 losses, you know?"

Few do know. Seattle's 21-day, 17-game exile from the win column had gained unwanted intrigue for its rarity. Only 12 of the 30 franchises had experienced a drought of such length, and only the 19 consecutive losses by the 2005 Royals coincided with the playing careers of any of the current Mariners.

"These guys haven't felt good in a long time," manager Eric Wedge said after the streak was finally over. "When you've got a monkey on your back that size, it's damn hard to get it off."

Part of baseball's appeal has always been its short-term unpredictability. Anything can happen in one at bat or one game. Even the best hitters only reach base four times out of 10; all but the worst teams lose at the same rate. That's what makes all streaks -- a player's hitting streak and a team's winning or losing streak -- so intriguing and why a 17-game losing streak is wholly inexplicable, doubly so when it happened to this Mariners team, which was 43-43 and only 2 ½ games out of first place in the AL West before it began.

That's why the losing streak received daily updates in the national media, even popping up on a sports talk show in the Mariners' clubhouse before Wednesday's game, with about half the team looking up to watch.

"Every time we turn on SportsCenter, it's on the bottom line or it's the next thing coming up how many losses we've had," shortstop Brendan Ryan said. "It gets old. Nobody wants to be made fun of. For the most part I don't think we were even playing that bad."

Indeed, the M's hung tough through most of the skid: 13 of their 17 straight losses were by four runs or fewer (though only two were by one run), two more losses were by five runs and only two were true blowouts. In the first nine losses Seattle's offense averaged 1.2 runs and failed to score more than three in any game. In the next eight losses their pitching staff allowed an average of 7.5 runs and only twice held their opponents under six.

The skid began with the division-leading Rangers starting what would become a 12-game winning streak and so for the first nine games of the Mariners' losing streak, they lost a game in the standings each day.

"We're learning that baseball doesn't feel sorry for you at all," catcher Josh Bard said. "It just will pound you in the sand. We're learning that that saying of 'it can't get any worse' is bullcrap. You've got to do something about making it better, and that's the thing that Wedge has been preaching. He's right."

Wedge, who previously managed the Indians from 2003-09 through the full spectrum of seasons, called out most of his veterans for their poor performances before Wednesday's game.

"I've been talking to about the veterans all year long, you can't expect the kids to lead you out of this, the veterans have to do it," Wedge said. "At best the veterans have underachieved all year long, except for one or two guys. So that's where we are."

Over the weekend Wedge shaved his trademark mustache -- noting "drastic times, drastic measures" -- to change the course of the Mariners' recent fortunes, though he took a reasoned tone in saying that the losing streak alone did not cost the club a chance to contend for a championship.

"It's neutralized our regular season record this year but not our grand plan or the big picture," Wedge said Monday. "I don't think we were probably as good as we thought back then and we're not as bad as we are right now."

Seattle's offensive problems, however, started before the losing streak, as they had begun a stretch of 34 games in which they failed to score more than six runs. The Mariners, whose 513 runs last season were the majors' fewest in a non-shortened season since 1982, are little better this year. Their 345 runs in 104 games equates to a pace of 537. They rank last in the AL in runs, hits, average, on-base and slugging percentages.

Consider the usage of Miguel Olivo and Adam Kennedy. In Olivo's 10-year big-league career, he's most commonly batted seventh or eighth and even batted ninth more often than sixth; this year he has batted fourth 37 times. In Kennedy's 13-year career he has most frequently batted ninth but also regularly filled the seventh, eighth, second or first spots; this year's he has started in the fourth or fifth spot 26 times after doing so only nine times in previous years.

While first baseman Justin Smoak, the top prospect received in last year's trade for starter Cliff Lee, has cooled off recently, he showed some of his true potential in the early months of the season and has 12 home runs and 44 RBIs, both second on the club. Outfielder Mike Carp, now in his sixth stint up in the majors, has swung a hot bat, going 4-for-5 with four RBIs on Wednesday to raise his average to .294.

The Mariners' best hitter -- given that future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki is having by far the worst year of his storied career -- is 23-year-old rookie Dustin Ackley, who on Wednesday played the 33rd game of his big-league career. Batting third in the order, he went 3-for-5 with two singles and a triple and drove in the club's first three runs. He leads the team in average (.301) and slugging (.512) and ranks second in OBP (.351).

"It's been weird, I've never really been on a losing team," said Ackley, whose college teams at North Carolina averaged a 53-16 record (.768) in his three seasons. "It's definitely harder to see the positives when you've been through all these negatives."

Ackely has been one of the most prominent positives for the Mariners this season -- though the need for a few more proven bats is indisputable -- and so has their high-achieving pitching staff, which ranks fourth in the AL with a 3.57 ERA.

Until they play again on Friday, Seattle can focus squarely on Wednesday's streak-snapping win which Wedge said "means everything right now." After the game the Mariners seemed relieved as much as they were joyous. The on-field handshake line was no different than it would be after any victory in July. Though Wedge addressed the team after the game -- unusual after most regular-season games -- and music blared in the clubhouse, the scene was mostly hectic because it's getaway day.

Now, at least, the players can enjoy their five-hour, 20-minute flight to Seattle and off day tomorrow in peace.

"It's always nice to have happy plane flights," Ryan said. "I'm sure we'll have a couple Pepsis and have a couple laughs. I don't think any of us want to go through that again."

History says they probably won't. Enjoy those Pepis, Brendan.

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