While you weren't watching -- or more likely, while you were sleeping, since they play most of their game long past the bedtime of many on the East Coast -- the Seattle Mariners have become the hottest team in baseball, winning six in a row and eight of their last ten.
Tuesday morning, they sit 7½ games out of a spot to participate in the winner-take-all wild-card game. Granted, there are four other teams ahead of them vying for the slots now held by the Rays and Orioles, but do the Mariners have a shot at making it?
After 123 games of the 2011 season, the Rays stood 8½ games behind the wild-card-leading Red Sox (though with no other teams in between). After 123 games of the 2011 season, the Cardinals stood seven games behind the wild-card-leading Braves (with the Giants in between).
Yes, I know. Every season is different, and the Mariners are five games under .500, and haven't made the playoffs since 2001, and have had only two winning seasons since 2003, and just what am I thinking?
The Mariners, by virtue of their win Monday night over the Indians, evened up their runs-scored and runs-allowed total at 483. That means they're playing 3½ games below their Pythagorean projection (62-62), a record which would put them a lot closer to the Rays and Orioles. The 483 runs scored is ... well, it's not good. It ranks last in the American League. The Mariners are also last in OBP, SLG, OPS and OPS+, and second-to-last in home runs. A lot of that is due to their home park, which has a park factor of 88 this season, very conducive to pitchers.
And that's where the Mariners excel. The 483 runs allowed is third-best in the AL, behind just the Rays and Athletics. Felix Hernandez you know about -- he's one of the top pitchers in the game, just threw a perfect game, and has put up 4.4 rWAR already this year. Jason Vargas and Kevin Millwood have been passably good starters, but the Mariners' biggest strength has been their bullpen. The pen combined to finish off a no-hitter Millwood began June 8 against the Dodgers, and Tom Wilhelmsen has come out of nowhere to be an effective closer: 18 saves, just one blown save, and a 1.05 ERA and 0.845 WHIP since the beginning of June.
So can the Mariners push ahead of four other teams? It won't be easy. They'll spend six of the next nine days trying to fatten themselves up against the bottom-feeding Indians and Twins (sandwiched around a visit to the Central-leading White Sox). They have 20 home games and 19 road games remaining, and many of the games are against teams they'd have to pass to sneak into the second wild-card: Athletics (six), Angels (nine), Orioles (three) and Red Sox (three), in addition to home-and-home series against the Rangers.
But often, in late-season playoff races, pitching rules. And the Mariners have the pitching to compete with anyone. They're not likely to finish much over .500 -- it would take six more wins in a row from right now even to get there -- but it's possible that a team could sneak in with the second wild-card spot with a record of 83-79 or 84-78. Teams now ahead of the Mariners like the Angels and Red Sox seem to be fading.
Difficult? Sure. Impossible? Not at all. Just ask last year's Red Sox or Braves how they did in the playoffs they appeared to have locked up when September dawned.