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Baseball Scoreboards Schedules Standings Stats Teams Players All-Time Stats Minors College INSIDE BASEBALL

Seattle Swoon

The Mariners' defense of their division title has been a disaster

by Mark Bechtel and Jeff Pearlman

Posted: Wed September 9, 1998
Sports Illustrated
  Jay Buhner
It didn't help Seattle when Jay Buhner missed 59 games with a knee injury.    (Doug Pensinger/Allsport)
David Segui is no dummy. After missing out on postseason play in the first eight years of his big league career—the last 2 3/4 of which were spent in the small-market hell of Montreal—the first baseman became a free agent last fall. He signed with the Mariners, who had just made their second playoff appearance in three years and who would have seven recent All-Stars on this year's Opening Day roster. Plus, because the team is scheduled to move into a state-of-the-art, retractable-roof cash cow next summer, Segui figured he wouldn't have to worry about ownership unloading players to cut payroll. "I came here for a chance to win," Segui says, then pauses. "We had the chance. We just didn't win."

That might be the understatement of the year. Seattle's quest this September isn't the playoffs but merely to avoid becoming the third American League team to go from first to worst in its division in one year. At week's end the defending Western Division champs were 64-77 and battling the A's, a far less talented club, for third place. Unlike the world champion Marlins, the Mariners don't have the excuse that they traded away all their talent.

So what happened? Centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr. made a modest run at Roger Maris (and will almost certainly become the third man in history to have back-to-back 50-homer seasons), shortstop Alex Rodriguez is two homers short of becoming the third player to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases, and Segui has been solid offensively and defensively (a team-best .308 average and one error). Seattle leads the majors in home runs and became the first team in history to hit 200 dingers in three consecutive seasons. Despite the power, Segui says, "there are so many areas we need to address—bullpen, leadoff hitter, defense, you name it."

In recent years Seattle has been plagued by those shortcomings but has always found a way to win. This season, though, a lot of bad mojo caught up with the club. Ace Randy Johnson spent much of the spring voicing his discontent with team owners for not having traded him after talks on a long-term contract extension broke down last fall. He then spent most of the season pitching like Lady Bird Johnson. Many of his teammates took management's refusal to re-up the Big Unit as a sign that ownership wasn't committed to winning.

As upset as the players were, the fact remains that they had all but played themselves out of the race by the time Johnson was dealt to the Astros. The bullpen set the tone for the season by blowing a three-run lead on Opening Day, and less than two weeks later it gave up seven runs in the ninth without retiring a batter to turn a 7-2 lead into a 9-7 loss to the Red Sox. That defeat dropped them 2 1/2 games out of first; they haven't been that close since.

The Seattle offense couldn't pick up the slack this time. In games in which the Mariners didn't homer more than once, they were 29-51 at week's end, and when they scored fewer than four runs, they were 9-42. They were hitting .274, but their performance in the clutch was abysmal—.252 after the sixth inning and .263 with runners in scoring position.

The good news for Seattle is that the team will be in position to get help in the off-season. Nearly all the players they want back next year are under contract, while most of the flammable bullpen and a few peripheral position players are free to walk.

Last winter free agent Randy Myers expressed interest in pitching in Seattle, but the Mariners didn't pursue him. The team can ill afford a similar lapse while addressing their bullpen needs this off-season. Other items on their wish list: a No. 1 starter, a leftfielder (the Mariners have used 59 alongside Griffey over the past 10 years) and a leadoff hitter.

Issue date: September 14, 1998

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