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Boone: Ms may be better than in 01

Seattle uses solid bullpen, bench to contend in AL

SEATTLE Ñ During spring training, Bret Boone said the 2003 Seattle Mariners could be a better team than the 2001 version that won a record-setting 116 games and reached the American League Championship Series.

Nearly a quarter of the way into the season, Boone hasn't changed his opinion.

'I definitely believe that,' the veteran second baseman said Sunday after the Mariners' 7-2 victory over the Chicago White Sox at Safeco Field. 'I'm not saying we're going to win 117 games, but that has nothing to do with it. We are every bit as good as we were then, and we have added some bodies to our bench that should make us stronger.'

Seattle enters tonight's visit to Cleveland tied for the AL West lead with Oakland at 23-14. That puts the Mariners on pace for a 100-win season. Last year, the M's won 93 games, but that was good for only third place in the division behind Oakland (103-59) and Anaheim (99-63).

Early indications are promising, despite a difficult schedule that has included home-and-home series with division rivals Oakland, Anaheim and Texas and the formidable New York Yankees.

Seattle leads the league in fielding, is third with a 3.80 ERA and owns a team batting average of .276, fifth in the AL.

With closer Kazuhiro Sasaki on hand after missing two weeks because of a back injury, the bullpen Ñ featuring Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Jeff Nelson, Arthur Rhodes and Sasaki Ñ is as solid as any in baseball. Ageless lefty Jamie Moyer, who allowed two hits in seven innings in Sunday's gem against the White Sox, continues to impress, and No. 4 and 5 starters Ryan Franklin and Gil Meche have been outstanding.

The biggest question is Freddy Garcia, the ace of the staff, who compiled a 60-29 record over the last four years and was an All-Star the last two. Garcia, who turns 27 next month, was rocked for nine runs in the third inning of a 16-5 loss to the Yankees last week. Garcia, 3-4 with an ERA of 5.40, left the Yankee game to a chorus of boos reminiscent of Kingdome sendoffs to past Mariner relief flub-ups Bobby Ayala and Heathcliff Slocumb.

First-year Manager Bob Melvin chooses to believe that it was a temporary setback.

'Nine runs in one inning, that is a serious crooked number,' Melvin says. 'But that is going to happen during a season. Yeah, we're struggling to find out why it happened. He's our No. 1 guy. He's been consistent in most of his other starts.

'I know Freddy wants to get better. It's not like he is passŽ about it. It bothers him. He has been working hard in the weight room. He's been watching tape.

'He heard the boos. You try to tune that stuff out, but in your own park, it hurts a little bit. But as he said, he didn't do his job. He was upset with his performance, not with the fans.'

Others wonder about several things. About Garcia's comportment on the mound when things aren't going smoothly. About his work ethic and his maturity. About his affinity for Seattle's nightspots and dedication to his trade. He had a 5.66 ERA last year after the All-Star Game.

Everything else looks good about the Mariners' early-season play, starting with the amazing Edgar Martinez. The 40-year-old designated hitter, who is likely to retire after the season, is smacking the ball around, hitting .343 with an on-base percentage of .460. Martinez ho-

mered Saturday and Sunday and continues to be one of the most dangerous bats in the league.

He has help. Boone, Carlos Guillen, Randy Winn and Dan Wilson are all hitting better than .290. Ichiro Suzuki is 15 of 38 (.395) in May, raising his average from .250 to .282. With Jeff Cirillo beginning to show signs of life, there isn't an easy out in the lineup.

Off the bench, Melvin can use Mark McLemore, Greg Colbrunn, Ben Davis (who splits time with Wilson at catcher), John Mabry and Willie Bloomquist. Colbrunn homered Sunday in a rare start.

'Our bench has improved,' Boone says. 'A couple of guys are scuffling at the plate, but these guys are very good players and have proved that over the years. They are going to come around and be a big part of this team. We can be an even better offensive team than we were two years ago.'

The emergence of Franklin (3-2, 3.80 ERA) and Meche (4-2, 2.86) has given Seattle a nice boost.

'We have been real consistent,' says Meche, 24, who blew a 3-0 lead to lose 4-3 to the White Sox on Saturday. 'Every starter we have has been getting us into the late innings of games. Ryan and I have had some good write-ups as the 4 and 5 guys, but we feel like we can pitch anyplace in the rotation.'

Melvin adds: 'The starters we run out there, we feel like we can win every night. When I was with Arizona, we knew we were going to win with (Curt) Schilling and (Randy) Johnson, but we had to work pretty hard the next three nights. It is a good feeling to have guys pitching as well in the five-hole as in the one-hole.'

With Seattle's strong bullpen, the starters need to give only six or seven good innings.

'Handing the ball to those guys, you know it's going to be a 'W',' Meche says. 'It has been like that for three years now. That was why I was so aggravated to give up the lead (Saturday). Had I gotten it to those guys in the seventh or eighth, I liked our chances.'

The major difference between the philosophies of Melvin and his predecessor, Lou Piniella, is that Melvin intends to rest his regulars more often.

'We have a solid 25-man roster,' Melvin says. 'We try to get everybody involved. That's where our strengths are. We don't dominate with four or five guys in the middle of the order, or with two or three starting pitchers. We are going to win with 25 guys.'