SIX GAMES, SIX LOSSES. Nothing season-defining, nothing heartbreaking, nothing even memorable, just a nearly weeklong mid-April shrug that ended with the Seattle Mariners trudging toward the clubhouse six times while the Astros or Indians shook hands. But near the end of it, before loss five, Mariners manager Scott Servais found himself in an odd position: forced to explain why a team that was never supposed to win suddenly stopped winning.
He couldn't say what must have been on his tongue -- What did you expect? -- so that part stayed unspoken but understood. The Mariners started the season with 13 wins in 15 games, and they hit homers as if it were a choice, and they had everybody wondering how a team could dump nearly every recognizable name on its roster and come out on the other side with something approaching historic greatness.
It was the type of streak that causes people with a lot of time on their hands to point out that every other team that won 13 of its first 15 also won the World Series, and the type of streak that made six straight losses in mid-April far more newsworthy than anybody would have guessed.
Through those first 15 games, Servais had gone through every known variant of an equally unlikely question: What happens when a team that's not supposed to win suddenly does? Now, five losses in and fielding a nearly infinite number of corollaries, he decided to let the walls of his office do the talking for him.
He turned his head to the right and pointed his chin at a poster opposite a framed Vince Lombardi quote ("The Man on Top of the Mountain Didn't Fall There") and a bit to the right of a sign that bears the Mariners' logo and some "Process Driven" pabulum you might find in a Walmart breakroom.
"Look at that," he said, and everyone in the room dutifully followed along, mentally vectoring the chin and the wall to discover Servais' target: a large Mariners calendar schedule.
There it was, game after game, week after week, month after month. Home games in white, road games in blue, more miles flown over the course of the season than any team in baseball. A show-us-what-you-got trip to Cleveland, New York and Boston to start May. A Detroit-Toronto-Tampa trip in mid-August. Mid-August: a lifetime from now. "Look at all those games," Servais said, as if noticing it for the first time. "That's one long season."
JERRY DIPOTO IS positive and certain in a way that makes you wonder if he ever doubts. The Mariners' GM says, "The glass is always half full," and then laughs, but that doesn't begin to cover it. This is a man who never leaves the house wondering whether he locked the doors or turned off every burner on the stove, a man who always has exact change for bridge toll. The glass in Dipoto's mind overflows.
It's the type of certitude that enabled him to spend the offseason practically flinging players -- Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, James Paxton, Jean Segura, Alex Colome, Nelson Cruz -- from the roster of an 89-win team that hasn't made the postseason for 17 years, the active MLB record. He replaced them by implementing what might be termed an accelerated rebuild. Try to fix everything, from the aging roster to the lousy chemistry, without waiting around for the better part of a decade to see if any of it worked.
"If a rebuild usually takes five to eight years, we wanted to do it in half the time," Dipoto says. "We decided to focus on birth certificates. If the normal way" -- Dipoto later called it the Astros way -- "is to acquire 21- and 22-year-olds and hope they grow to be strong contributors at 26 and 27, what if we just go out and acquire guys who are 25, 26 and 27?"
Sounds simple. Completely overturn a roster by taking big swings at unproven guys who might need just a hug and a chance. Why didn't anyone else think of it? Plus, and this isn't a minor point, the strategy falls right in line with baseball's trend toward valuing youth and club control over just about everything else. Players older than 30 feel the squeeze: less money, fewer years, no more one-final-huge-contracts out there to finish a career. The Mariners remain in baseball's upper half for player salaries, but the core is unproven and cheap -- by design.
Dipoto and Servais discussed this, how they could construct a team around talented players who languished behind stars in other organizations. Daniel Vogelbach -- arms like legs, legs like piers -- was stuck behind Anthony Rizzo in the Cubs organization, and now he's slugging his way through all the stereotypes. Domingo Santana posted an .875 OPS in his one full season in Milwaukee but found himself struggling to find a consistent role in an outfield with Christian Yelich and Ryan Braun. Catcher Omar Narvaez was a 1.9 WAR player as a part-timer with the White Sox last season; he's catching nearly every day for the Mariners and hitting with power (a .875 OPS in April).
"It didn't really feel gutsy," Dipoto says. "It felt like we were doing the smart thing. But we knew the reaction might be a little ... I'd say tepid. But I've done enough that's been received by smiles and laughter, and enough where I'm sometimes hit in the head with fruit. You're not always going to be popular, but we did something to chart our own future instead of having to react to what an aging roster told us we had to do. We decided to create something that looks different."
HOW DIFFERENT CAN a big league ballclub look? Start with what happens a couple of hours before nearly every game, when the Mariners turn the clock back about 30 years and take a full-blown infield. They field grounders and throw to first, they turn double plays, the catchers throw to the bases. If someone screws up -- and since the Mariners were the worst fielding team in baseball through April, the extra work is warranted -- he goes again. It's all very elementary of them.
There's a hitting simulator in the tunnel between the Mariners' clubhouse and dugout at T-Mobile Park. A huge screen beams a life-size video of that night's opposing pitcher, throwing on an endless loop, and Seattle's hitters stop to stand in and get a feel for release point and, to a lesser extent, pitch movement. The simulator is just down the hall from a big banner with the team's motto: Kaizen, which is a Japanese term for the pursuit of daily, incremental improvement.
"They pretty much think of everything around here," Vogelbach says.
Even after another four-game swoon, not unlike the one Servais deflected in April, through the season's first 32 games, the Mariners lead the majors in every meaningful offensive statistic. They went 18-14 and averaged nearly six runs and two homers per game, and the production was as much patience as aggression. The Mariners' analytics department brought a new focus on pitch location and strike-zone awareness -- not only whether a pitcher is more likely to throw certain pitches for strikes, but where those pitches are most vulnerable within the strike zone. The new approach is best exemplified by second baseman Dee Gordon. This year, he has worked six walks in his first 111 plate appearances. Last year: nine in 588.
For a sport that prides itself on the daily dirge of failure and repentance, it's a convivial atmosphere. Sage vet Jay Bruce and Vogelbach -- seriously, it's impossible to overstate the size of the dude's glue-stick biceps -- are inseparable at one end of the clubhouse. At the other, where the relievers sit in their perpetual state of wait, rookies Brandon Brennan and Connor Sadzeck are reliving a pitch Brennan threw a couple of nights earlier. "Dude, I was sitting down there and everybody thought it was a slider," Sadzeck said. "I had to tell 'em: that's his changeup."
"We know there are a lot of people who don't think we're going to be any good," outfielder Mitch Haniger says. "Because of that, everybody in here roots for each other."
Haniger is a 28-year-old outfielder who might have started this whole thing by being warehoused behind A.J. Pollock in Arizona before being traded to Seattle after the 2016 season. He's now as close as the Mariners get to having a young, fully formed star.
"We call Mitch our champion because he truly is," pitcher Marco Gonzales says. "On and off the field, he does everything the right way. He cheers for everybody, and he's one of the best teammates."
Champion. In the context of a big league clubhouse, where the sarcasm is omnipresent if not always elevated, could they be serious?
"It's not at all sarcastic," Gonzales says. "Every time he gets a hit, we're like, 'That's our champion, that's our guy.'"
Haniger reacts about as enthusiastically as you might expect. "I ignore it," he says in a polite tone that still manages to suggest he will also choose to ignore further questions on the topic. "I will say, though, I did talk to some guys in the offseason about making sure this isn't one guy's clubhouse. We knew we had to make it the whole team's clubhouse."
ON A COLDER-than-it-looked mid-April evening, pitcher Mike Leake lay on the clubhouse carpet, stretching out before a start against the Indians. He's 31 years old but looks as if he could have ridden a skateboard to the ballpark. In a few hours, he'll walk off the mound after giving up two runs over six innings in a game the Mariners will lose 4-2.
The next afternoon, Leake says, "The way this team is built seems to be the business way to go right now. There are still some guys at home who could help a team compete, but the way they like to run it here is a business style. You can either accept it and play the game of baseball, or fight the system and they'll probably ship you out. They're trying to push the young. It's cheaper for them and it's more pliable. A veteran guy is going to want to do things his way. He's not going to accept new information if it's not going to make him better."
Leake wasn't naming names, probably because it was unnecessary. A bullpen as untested and inconsistent as Seattle's could use the unsigned Craig Kimbrel at the back end. A rotation assembled with as much twine and wire as Seattle's could drop Dallas Keuchel into the No. 2 or even No. 1 spot and be at least two games better over the course of a season.
"If we did sign them, then we would please the analytical world and the Twitter world," Dipoto says. Could Kimbrel and Keuchel, unsigned into May, possibly be cheap enough for the Mariners to be interested? "I have no idea," Dipoto says. "We're swimming in a different pond. Right now our pond is Connor Sadzeck, it's Brandon Brennan, it's Omar Narvaez. It's finding guys who need an opportunity and giving it to them."
Young, cheap and desperate for a chance is the new market inefficiency. Sadzeck is a 27-year-old rookie who walked 11 in 9⅓ innings with the Rangers last season and was acquired in an April 1 microtrade after he was designated for assignment by Texas. Where some might see stuff that behaves like an irrational toddler -- a fastball that tops 100 mph, a nearly unhittable 91 mph slider that has found a backstop or two in its day -- Dipoto sees the kind of prodigious talent that just might mature into a closer.
Dipoto's standard introduction, one he used with Sadzeck and backup catcher Tom Murphy, who was released by two teams this spring, reflects both his relentless optimism and his Father Damien outlook on player acquisition. "It looks like you're a big league player who hasn't been given the opportunity," he tells the new guys, "and we're going to give it to you."
Narvaez, a catcher traded from the White Sox for Colome, says, "That meant everything to me. Everything I've been working for. It's almost like a dream come true to be the No. 1 guy. It gives me a lot of pride in myself, and now I have to take care of it and take advantage of it."
The gratitude expressed by several of the new Mariners underscores the motivation behind Dipoto's frenzied offseason: flushing the toxins from the team's system. Despite the 89 wins last season, the entire enterprise went from stale to poisonous. Games would end -- win or lose -- and everyone would disperse like employees and not teammates. "Not many team gatherings," Gonzales says wryly. The tension peaked in early September, when Gordon and Segura fought in the clubhouse before a game.
"The first half of last season couldn't have gone better for us," Dipoto says. "Everyone was excited about it, but then the lights would go out at the stadium, the guys would grab their food and head out. Then they'd show up the next day for batting practice. The second half of the season, when we weren't getting the same breaks, you could see the fractures. It's nice to win 89 games, but if we truly thought we were an 89-win team, we wouldn't have done what we did."
They've proved that failure is sustainable, so why not take a shot at success?
"We have an unwritten future," Gonzales says. "And I think we're all on board with writing the best one that we can." The schedule, all those games in all those places, looms out there in the distance; all you have to do is follow the chin. But no matter where the endless blocks of blue and white boxes ultimately lead, they'll never erase the rarest of species: the baseball team that managed to pull off the wildly entertaining rebuild.