Resilient Mariners show why their bid to contend is legit

BOSTON -- Nobody was worried in the Mariners clubhouse before Saturday's game. Dee Gordon sat on the black leather couch watching the Johnsonville Cornhole Championships on ESPN. Nick Vincent and Mike Leake played cards. Edwin Diaz chatted on his phone. Jean Segura addressed the media about the infection in his forearm, wrapped in a bandage, and admitted it had been "pretty gross" before the antibiotics kicked in.

The Mariners had lost five games in a row, including the first four games on this East Coast trip through New York, Boston and Baltimore. They had blown two five-run leads in three days, even though teams have won nearly 96 percent of the games they led by five runs during this season. The Mariners' start was maybe a mirage, some suggested, built on a mountain of one-run wins that wasn't sustainable, and this little skid was evidence the Mariners weren't ready to battle the big boys.

How concerned were the Mariners about all this? Ace lefty James Paxton thought the team had lost only four games in a row.

So maybe it wasn't quite a rescue, but enter Leake, at least throwing a life vest to help save the week. He gave up only three hits over eight scoreless innings in a 7-2 victory over the Red Sox, exiting after 98 pitches only because closer Edwin Diaz needed some work after not pitching in six days.

"When you have a five-game losing streak, yeah, I think you need to end it," Leake said after the game. "It's nice tonight, and my round was the one that ended it, so hopefully we can carry tomorrow and have a nice flight."

Manager Scott Servais praised the veteran right-hander.

"Really, really big for our ballclub for him to step up like that," Servais said. "That's exactly what we needed, for somebody to go out there and just shut it down and steady things here and let our offense keep going. The key to the game was Mike Leake."

The Mariners had been the surprise challengers to the powerful Astros in the AL West and, after sweeping the Angels last week, held a half-game lead over Houston. They were also 21-10 at the time in one-run games, on pace to set a record for most one-run wins in a season. The skeptics pointed to an easy schedule to that point -- they hadn't played the Red Sox or Yankees yet and had played only six games against the Astros -- and a meager run differential.

After splitting four games at Safeco against the Red Sox -- two more one-run victories -- the tough, 10-game East Coast swing began. They were two-hit in the opener at Yankee Stadium, blew a 5-0 lead and lost on Giancarlo Stanton's walk-off home run, and then went 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position in dropping a 4-3 decision to Luis Severino. And then Friday's disaster, blowing a 4-0 lead in the top of the first when Boston scored five in the bottom of the inning and surging back to take a 10-5 lead only to see the Red Sox answer with nine runs in a wild 14-10 affair.

It wasn't just losing to the Yankees and Red Sox but losing in ugly fashion that had Mariners beat writers telling me the fans back in Seattle were starting to panic. Memo to Mariners fans: The team isn't panicking.

"This team is full of a lot of guys who really like each other, we have really good chemistry, we have each other's backs, we trust one another. I think we all believe in each other and what we can accomplish," Paxton said before the game. "Yes, we hit a little skid here, but that happens to every team no matter how good you are. We know we're going to come back from this, what, four-game losing streak?"

It's interesting that Paxton and fellow starter Wade LeBlanc both brought up that undefinable thing that sabermetrics can't measure -- or certainly can't measure in the exacting detail of exit velocity or spin rate or anything else you want to track. They weren't being critical of statistical information or advanced metrics, just stressing there's more that goes on with a team that affect wins and losses.

"There are a lot of guys that just enjoy playing together, playing as a unit," LeBlanc said. "If you ask anybody that's been inside the clubhouse or on a team, chemistry is real. This day and age, people try to find equations and put numbers to everything, and it's something that you can't quantify, so it's easy to say it doesn't exist. But it's real, it's meaningful and it shows up on the field in crunch time."

We have recent history to show that the Mariners' success in one-run games maybe can continue. In 2016, the Rangers went 36-11 in one-run games, the best winning percentage ever in one-run games. They won 95 games despite outscoring their opponents by only eight runs. The 2012 Orioles got off to a hot start by winning close games and extra-inning games. Nobody thought it could continue. It did. They went 29-9 in one-run games, won 93 games with a plus-seven run differential on the season and made the playoffs.

Even if some of this has been luck, well, these results are in the book and the Mariners have built themselves a little bit of a cushion with a six-game lead over the Angels for the second wild card as they aim for their first postseason since 2001. According to FanGraphs data, their playoff odds are 68 percent (although that was down from 75 percent a couple of days ago).

"Everyone's wearing it a little bit," Servais said. "We understand we hadn't been playing particularly well or finishing off games on this trip, so a complete game tonight and everybody chipped in. That's what we've been about all year: everyone contributing."

It's only one game and one win in the middle of a long season, but considering Chris Sale is starting for Boston on Sunday, it was a big win for the Mariners. And as Lou Brown might say, "If we win today, it's called two in a row. And if we again tomorrow, it's called a winning streak."

That's how baseball goes. Beat Sale, take three out of four in Baltimore and you're happy with a 5-5 road trip. Maybe then Mariners fans can breathe a little more easily.