Given a golden chance to seize the team's first playoff spot since 2001, the Seattle Mariners are instead doing everything they can to come up just short. Monday night's 14-4 pasting at the hands of the Blue Jays, Seattle's third straight loss, has left the Mariners two games out of a wild-card spot with just six games left. The Mariners pulled into a tie for the second wild-card spot with the Royals and half-a-game behind the Athletics for the No. 1 wild-card spot on Sept. 13 but have gone 3-7 since.
What has to be most aggravating for the Mariners is that at the most crucial point of the season, the team's strongest unit has fallen apart. In that 3-7 stretch, Seattle has given up 60 runs, including eight or more runs in a game four times. The pitching staff boasted a 3.02 ERA going into the month of September, but has seen that mark jump all the way up to 3.12 since. Overall, Mariners pitchers have posted a 4.21 ERA in September (counting Monday night's thrashing), with Seattle's starters getting tuned up to a 4.64 ERA in 108 2/3 innings.
The last three games have been especially painful as Seattle hurlers have allowed 32 earned runs in two games against Houston and one against Toronto. James Paxton couldn't get a handle Monday with the Blue Jays jumping on the 25-year-old lefty for four runs in the first inning, three coming on a bases-loaded triple by Danny Valencia, then tagging on five more in the third off Paxton and reliever Brandon Maurer. Things got so bad for Seattle that Kevin Pillar and Anthony Gose — who had combined for seven homers in 740 career at-bats going into the night — went deep in the rout. Gose, in particular, hit an absolute bomb to center field off Danny Farquhar to put an exclamation mark on the night's embarrassment.
It was a bad night for Paxton, but he's been the least of the Mariners' worries in September. He came into Monday's game with a 2.39 ERA in 26 1/3 innings this month. Two veteran stalwarts have led Seattle down: Hisashi Iwakuma and Chris Young. Iwakuma has been torched for a 9.35 ERA in 17 1/3 innings, including eight walks, in September, and has posted a 4.26 ERA in the second half after a sterling 2.98 mark before the All-Star break. He's failed to go past the sixth inning in his last six starts, hasn't posted a quality start or better since Aug. 31 and hasn't completed five innings in his last three starts. That includes Sunday's miserable outing against Houston of 4 1/3 innings for four earned on six hits and three walks.
Young, meanwhile, seemed to be in the midst of an unexpected renaissance at age 35, with a 3.15 ERA at the All-Star break. But the second half has been a different story for the well-traveled veteran, who has posted a 4.70 ERA since July 20 and thrown just one quality start in his last five tries. In September, Young has been downright awful with 14 earned runs in 14 1/3 innings, including a staggering seven homers allowed. In his last start against Houston on Saturday, Young was lit up for seven earned in three innings, including four homers. That could end up being his final appearance with the Mariners, as manager Lloyd McClendon told reporters the team would be skipping Young's next scheduled start, citing fatigue. Young is at 165 innings on the season, a figure he hasn't approached since 2007, when he threw 173.
With Iwakuma struggling and Young likely done for the season, that's put increased pressure on young hurlers Paxton, Roenis Elias and Taijuan Walker, as well as staff ace and AL Cy Young favorite Felix Hernandez. As can be expected from one of the best pitchers on the planet, Hernandez has responded brilliantly. His ERA in September is 0.96 in 28 innings over four starts, with 31 strikeouts and just eight walks. But that remaining trio is light on MLB experience and has battled injuries this season (Paxton and Walker have fought shoulder problems, while Elias has dealt with a sore elbow), making them a shaky play down the stretch.
UPDATE: And the Mariners are now down Elias as well, as the team has shut him down for the rest of the year with an elbow injury.
Unfortunately for Seattle, the team can't count on its offense to pick up the slack with the pitching struggling. Seattle's team OPS in September was a mere .648 going into Monday's game, and the lineup is suffering through extended slumps from Austin Jackson, Dustin Ackley and Kendrys Morales. As such, the Mariners need their once-otherworldly pitching staff to right itself in a hurry, or else 2014 will end up being just the latest in a long and disappointing stretch of playoff-less seasons in the Pacific Northwest.