SEATTLE — The familiar sinking feeling returned quickly, in the first inning of the most anticipated Mariners homestand opener in a long, long time.

The team had entered the Major League Baseball All-Star Game bathed in the glow of a 14-game winning streak, a team with no expectations suddenly looked daunting. Coming off the break, last weekend’s three-game series against the AL West leaders Houston Astros was set to be a litmus test.

Was it finally OK to snag real hope for the Seattle Mariners?

To beat. With a clean swing, an Astros home run confirmed the answer.

In Friday’s opener, the Mariners starter, left-hander Marco Gonzales, threw a four-seam fastball that Jose Altuve couldn’t resist: too slow, too close to the heart of the strike zone.

It looked like an omen. As if the Mariners’ wonderful and unexpected winning streak was about to end, soon to be replaced by well-founded doubt.

It’s baseball. It breaks your heart. In the 21st century, no team and no city understands this better than Seattle.

Twenty seasons without a playoff appearance, the longest such drought in major American professional sports. The only MLB franchise never to compete in the World Series.

Seattle baseball fans possess two traits in abundance: a stubborn, unrewarded loyalty to the Mariners and the sports version of post-traumatic stress disorder. As a Seattle native and lifelong Mariners fan who’s spent too many afternoons watching baseball lose in the grim darkness of the long-gone Kingdome, I can vouch for that. In the Pacific Northwest, defeat tends to be borne politely. And when it comes to the Mariners, with deep resignation.

Things only got more worrying on Friday after the Altuve Circuit when the Mariners went to bat, determined to even that tense affair – a home game played before a rare sold-out crowd midway through the season – with their own run.

The Mariners’ magnetic first hitter, the player almost everyone in the stands wanted to see, was a no-show. Julio Rodríguez, the phenomenal 21-year-old center back who had just thrown 81 balls over the outfield fence during the Home Run Derby in Los Angeles, had been dropped from the roster due to wrist pain.

As I walked through the stands at T-Mobile Park, I could hear a collective sigh of deflation emanating from the crowd.

“It’s so on brand,” longtime fan Evan Riggs told me. “Of course they would come down early. Of course, their best player wouldn’t play because he just got hurt, probably in the All-Star Game.

“It’s the Mariners.”

I couldn’t have said it better.

Through June 20, the Mariners struggled to manage a record 10 games under .500. But then they suddenly became the hottest team in baseball — winning 22 of 25 games — and found themselves within 10 games of Houston in the hunt for the AL West crown.

Out of nowhere, the Mariners suddenly leaned over the precipice of hope.

So it hurt, deeply but also unsurprisingly, when the Astros won an easy, wire-to-wire, 5-2 win on Friday. The pain deepened on Saturday, when 39-year-old right-hander Justin Verlander propelled the Astros to a second victory, 3-1.

On Sunday, with Rodríguez still injured and out of the starting lineup, Seattle trailed 6-0 after three innings and succumbed, 8-5. The big series turned out to be an agonizing sweep. Like before.

A little review for those who do not understand the level of suffering of this team.

In 46 years of existence, no baseball organization has been worse. Some of the game’s most iconic stars wore a Seattle uniform during their heyday – Ken Griffey Jr. tops the list – but the Mariners have only made the playoffs four times, and all in a short window. from 1995 to 2001. .

But these, supposedly, are the new Mariners. A team trying to innovate and get rid of a past in which the most current players had no part. Seattle fans want to dare to dream big. But you can’t quite let go. We expect the shoe to fall off – or a swollen wrist to start another losing spiral.

Fans of the show this past weekend echoed my apprehension:

“Cautious optimism is the best I can do.”

“It’s like we’ve been here before, but every time we get burned.”

“I feel like they can finally make the playoffs. It also feels like they’re probably going to go on a losing spree.

Then there was this from Dusty Baker, the Astros manager, as he stood by the batting cage before Friday’s game, wondering what the mood was like in town. They’re ready to win big, I told him, but I’m sure your team will have something to say about it.

Baker smiles. “Yes we will.”

He’s not so much a diviner as he’s used to leading a real competitor. His Astros are 5-2 against the MLB-leading Yankees this season after sweeping a doubleheader in Houston last week. Against the Mariners, their tireless precision was reminiscent of a great champion I saw at Wimbledon two weeks ago. Like Novak Djokovic, when Houston puts down the clamps, they don’t let go.

I almost dread to dream that the Mariners are about to become that kind of team. It’s funny how sports can transform “the feathery thing”, as Emily Dickinson called hope, in a weight to bear.

In April, I was cautiously certain that Seattle, after building this team with smart off-season moves and creating one of the best systems in minor league baseball, could go further than the 2021 result, when they were eliminated in the last game of the season.

Then came that winning streak in which they surpassed the slow, steady progress befitting charming underdogs.

Now I think about what it will take to completely destroy Seattle’s reputation as polite losers in aqua jerseys. Bowels. Bold. Words no one used a month and a half ago.

Management should be emboldened by how close the Mariners seem to be breaking the long cycle of desperate losses. Drop the chips and go all-in. The major league trade deadline is August 2. Washington’s Juan Soto is on the trading block – an extreme rarity as the 23-year-old superstars are the most coveted asset a team in any sport can have.

Do something big, something that looks like the early 2000s of Ichiro Suzuki, then 27 years old. Now is the time to break what feels like a curse. All of these talented players in the minor leagues represent nothing more than potential. Pack a bunch of them in a bushel, add a quality starter from the major league team, and make Nationals an offer they’d be fools to turn down.

Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has spoken for weeks about making a strong and emotional move ahead of the looming trade deadline. He won’t say what, keeping a secret that only tightens fans’ grip on the doubt that defines us.

“We haven’t made the playoffs for 20 years,” Dipoto pointed out to me this weekend. “We’re the franchise that didn’t make the World Series.”

“The fans shouldn’t trust us until we get there,” he said, in a following breath, praising his team’s carefully calculated path of improvement.

But one of the beautiful traits of a sports fan is how games allow us to hope for the impossible, even the irrational. A Rodríguez and Soto outfield is just that, but I still dream of it, and I’m not the only one.