It’s the bitter end of another lost season. The Houston Astros clinched the American League West again Sunday, while the Mariners will wrap up another fruitless year in the division’s basement.
They were 36 games out of the division lead Monday morning, 26 games out of the Wild Card, and have a 66-90 record that rivals some of the worst in franchise history. And, of course, the longest playoff drought in major professional sports will extend to 18 seasons.
Is there really a reason to tune in when the Mariners begin their final week Tuesday night at T-Mobile Park? Actually, there are several. Here are the five most important storylines to watch as Seattle closes the 2019 season with a two-game series against the Astros and a four-game series against the A’s.
1. FAREWELL TO THE KING
After spending the past 15 seasons with Seattle — all 418 games of his stellar major league career — Thursday night’s start against Oakland is expect to be the last for Felix Hernandez in a Mariners uniform.
The club’s former shutdown ace is in the final year of a seven-year, $175 million contract that almost surely won’t be revisited this offseason. But, Hernandez has suggested more than once that making these final few appearances in Seattle — after returning from a months-long injury in late August — are important to him.
He tossed seven innings, allowing one earned run in his most recent start at T-Mobile Park against the White Sox two weeks ago, but said he hadn’t let thoughts of his final start against the A’s go through his head yet.
“Not yet,” he said following that game. “Not yet. I mean, I can’t wait for my last one. I don’t know what’s going to happen after that. But, I’ll tell you that I’m just going to go out there and compete with anybody.”
Expect his King’s Court cheering section — which has been expanded to 10 sections down the left field line for this game, and is offering $15 tickets with a “Forever the King” T-shirt and yellow placard that reads, “Thanks” — to be out in full force for this deserved farewell.
2. ROOKIES IN THE ROTATION
As one era ends, another begins. Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield, two rookies who project to slot into Seattle’s starting rotation alongside Marco Gonzales and Yusei Kikuchi next season, will each get another look before the season ends.
Dunn, who turned 24 years old Sunday and is the organization’s No. 5 prospect, is scheduled pitch Tuesday’s homestand opener against Houston’s Gerrit Cole.
It will be the right-hander’s third start since being promoted from Double-A Arkansas earlier this month. His innings will again be limited, but he’s already shown some quick progress, tossing two scoreless innings against the Pirates last week after allowing two runs and walking five in his debut against the Reds on Sept. 12.
Dunn is also scheduled to start Sunday’s season finale against Homer Bailey and the A’s.
The Mariners have given Sheffield a longer preview, promoting him from Arkansas near the end of August. He’s 0-1 with a 5.79 ERA in six starts since, but has shown flashes of the dominant left-handed starter he could be in the future, striking out 32 while walking 10 in 28 innings.
The 23-year-old, who is Seattle’s No. 9 prospect, is scheduled to start against Oakland’s Sean Manaea on Friday night.
3. MORE OF KYLE LEWIS
Maybe there are a few more Kyle Lewis homers coming in these final six games. But, even if there aren’t, the organization’s No. 10 prospect has sparked the Mariners in September, and supplied some much-needed hope for the future.
The 24-year-old outfielder is slashing at .327/.358/.755 in 12 games since his promotion from Arkansas, and has three doubles and six home runs — including those first three hit in his first three games.
“It’s a good way to start your Mariner career,” manager Scott Servais said recently. “He just stays in the game. He stays in the moment. He doesn’t get too caught up in anything, which is really nice to see from a young player.”
The Mariners are also 8-4 in games Lewis has played this season, so that adds even more incentive.
4. SHED SHOWING POP
Shed Long has had his share of ups and downs this season.
The Mariners have had a few looks at the 24-year-old rookie in an injury-riddled season, though. He was called up to debut in May, and logged seven doubles in 19 games across two stints with the club before ultimately being optioned back to Triple-A Tacoma.
Seattle’s No. 15 prospect then missed significant playing time with the Rainiers after breaking a finger on his throwing hand attempting to turn a double play.
But he returned in time for a September call-up, and has been one of Seattle’s more impressive young players this past month.
Long is slashing at .367/.406/.667 in 17 games since rejoining the Mariners, has four doubles, a triple, four homers and nine RBI, and has been slotted into Seattle’s leadoff spot several times.
“He’s got the ability to hit a double, hit a homer. It’s not just get on base and steal a base, like a prototypical leadoff guy,” Servais said recently. “But, the leadoff position has changed a lot over the years with the George Springers, and we even had Haniger in that spot for a good chunk of last year.
“When the lineup flips over, having that guy at the top that can drive the ball and drive in a few more runs sometimes is valuable.”
5. WEIRD RECORD WATCH
The Mariners have had to take the good with the bad this season, so here’s a look at a fun record to keep an eye on this last week, and another not-so-fun one.
▪ Entering Monday, Mariners rookies were leading the majors in homers for the month of September with 15. Lewis has his six, Long his four, Austin Nola has three and Dylan Moore has two.
“We have a lot of young guys that have a lot to prove,” Servais said recently. “They just don’t give up and it’s fun to watch them go out and play.”
▪ The Mariners already reset the record for their most lopsided loss in club history earlier this month, with a 21-1 loss to the Astros, but are still on the cusp of another not-so-great benchmark.
Seattle has lost by double digits eight times this season, and there’s still time to top the old record for single-season, double-digit losses set by the inaugural Mariners in 1977, who lost nine games by a margin of 10 or more runs.