Injuries, subpar play threaten Seattle's lead

SEATTLE Ñ The Old Geezers, aka the Seattle Mariners, are still breathing. They still lead the American League West Division, despite injuries and some poor or subpar individual performances.

'We're getting over this bug, knock on wood,' says Manager Bob Melvin, whose club plays host to Texas tonight through Monday.

The next time the Mariners play their AL West rivals will be the last three weeks of the season in September Ñ seven games vs. Texas, six vs. Oakland and six vs. Anaheim.

Closer Kazuhiro Sasaki, who has been out since June 5 because of fractured ribs, probably will return by Aug. 1. The makeshift closers have converted 17 of 22 save opportunities in his absence. 'He'll be fresh for the back end of the season,' Melvin says.

Maybe John Olerud and Edgar Martinez, both slowed by nagging hamstrings Ñ slowed even more than usual Ñ will be healthy by the final month of the season.

Maybe Jeff Cirillo (.210 through Wednesday) will discover his old self, although chances seem slim. Melvin has turned to rookie Willie Bloomquist to start games at third recently.

Maybe Freddie Garcia, mired in another inconsistent year with a .500 record (9-9) and soaring ERA (5.05), will somehow establish himself as the No. 1 starter. Not that the Mariners can't depend on their other four starters: Jamie Moyer, Joel Pineiro, Ryan Franklin and Gil Meche, who all sport ERAs under 4.00.

And maybe the Mariners will add offensive help by August, with the Major League Baseball trade deadline approaching. Ichiro Suzuki and Boone have enjoyed All-Star years, but with Martinez and Olerud playing out the twilight of their careers and Mike Cameron not returning to All-Star form, relative uncertainty remains about the team's pop heading into the stretch drive.

Oakland probably will make its run, led by its threesome of Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder, not to mention rookie Rich Harden. The A's have the best second-half record (.678 win percentage) of any team since 2000.

But Seattle shows all the signs of being able to hang on to the division lead. The Mariners have stellar defense, with only 35 errors (first in the majors) through 100 games and only two unearned runs allowed in the past 50 games.

Seattle also has the AL's second-best pitching staff (3.75 ERA) and fourth-best hitting (.275 average). And the M's have lost three consecutive games only once.

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