New year, same old story for Mariners

Hitting woes portend another sorry season in Seattle

SEATTLE - It may be that the Seattle Mariners are on the precipice of a turnaround that will mean better things ahead for the Northwest's major-league club.

Doesn't appear that way so far, though.

First glance at the 2011 Mariners makes you think they might be even worse than the Seattle team that lost 101 games through an embarrassing 2010 campaign.

Seattle's losing streak reached seven games with a 6-4 loss to Cleveland Sunday at Safeco Field, leaving the Mariners with a 2-7 record and hopes that things will improve as they continue the homestand Monday night against Toronto.

The manager - Eric Wedge - is new, but the Mariners' story seems much the same as last year. There is reigning Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez and a supporting cast of pitchers who should be able to get the job done. At the plate, there is Ichiro Suzuki and not much else to provide enough offense to win.

On Sunday, lefthander Eric Bedard - beginning a comeback after a year and a half away from shoulder surgery - got battered around as if he were George Chuvalo going up against Muhammad Ali in the boxing ring. The Indians - who have won seven in a row - roughed him up for 10 hits and six runs in his four innings of work.

Until Ryan Langerhans and Michael Saunders launched home runs in the seventh inning to make things respectable, the Mariner Moose and a dancing field crew drew the day's biggest cheers.

Afterward, Wedge was left to put some spin on Benard's brief outing.

'He was up in the zone some, but he had a live arm,' the Mariner skipper said. 'His stuff was good; he just didn't finish off like he needs to. The most encouraging part was the way the ball was coming out of his hand. He has something to work off of there.

'It's just part of him getting back on the mound, being more comfortable, settling in. The guy hasn't been out there for a long time. That's why you have to look toward his stuff, which is definitely there.'

Nine games is a small sample of work, but with Ichiro off to a .250 start, only two regulars are above that mark. And one of them, second baseman Jack Wilson (.333), is in the manager's doghouse for removing himself from a game after making two errors in an inning.

A year ago, Seattle's .236 batting average was the worst in baseball. Thanks to the ineptitude of Minnesota and Tampa Bay, the Mariners' .215 clip isn't even the worst in the American League so far this season. But it's pretty anemic.

'We'll be a better hitting team this year,' Wedge said. 'I've said that all along, and I feel that. We're going to work to put up better at-bats and make better outs, to make pitchers work. We've seen signs of that early on, but we still lack some consistency.

'We're going to be a better hitting club than what you're seeing right now. It doesn't just happen overnight. It's one of the hardest things to do. When you go out there and you fight through an at-bat and you compete - every individual has certain keys to allow that to happen. It's on (the coaching staff) to help them figure that out.'

Third baseman Chone Figgins is hitting .135. Cleanup man Jack Cust, the newly acquired designated hitter, is at .188. It's the rule rather than the exception right now, and it's not a pretty sight to see.

'We're getting guys on base and putting too much pressure on ourselves,' said Cust, a home run-hitting machine during his time with the Triple-A Portland Beavers in 2006 and '07. 'We haven't had that big inning to get us going. We've had opportunities, had guys in scoring position with less than two outs, but we're putting too much pressure on ourselves to come through with the big hit.

'It will come, once guys calm down a little bit. Hitting is contagious. Once it starts, everybody will get going.'

General manager Jack Zduriencik's major offseason pickups were Cust, journeyman infielders Adam Kennedy and Brendan Ryan and catcher Miguel Olivo, who won't exactly strike fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers.

The hope is that Figgins, Cust, mercurial outfielder Milton Bradley and 24-year-old first baseman Justin Smoak can provide enough pop to let a reasonably able pitching staff churn out some victories.

During spring training, Figgins hit .373, Bradley .318. Once games started counting, things have dried up.

Cust spoke optimistically Sunday about the possibilities. I'd have been disappointed in him if he hadn't.

'Look at the top of the lineup,' he said. 'We have guys who have done it before, plus some young guys who are just starting out with a lot of potential. We'll keep battling.

'I've been on a lot of teams, so I know we have the ability to score a lot of runs. We just have to keep on grinding. We've run into a couple of hot teams (in Texas and Cleveland). We have to keep plugging away. It's early, but we want to get out of this sooner than later.'

The Mariners were the pride of the Northwest when they won 116 games and reached the AL Championship Series in 2001 under Lou Piniella. They haven't been to the playoffs since. Despite a respectable payroll of more than $86 million - 16th among the majors' 30 teams - they're not going to make the postseason this year, or any time soon.

It looks as if it's going to be a long summer for the Mariners and their legion of followers. Wedge isn't conceding anything, but brave talk seems rather hollow right now.

'Every team goes through tough stretches,' he said. 'It's magnified early. We're going through a tough stretch now. The teams we're playing, they're going to have their share of them as well.

'You find out a lot about yourself when you go through these stretches. We'll even find out more because it's so early in the season.'

Seventy wins? It seems a stretch judging by what we've seen thus far. But as Wedge said, it's early. There are 153 games left on the schedule. Maybe the turnaround begins Monday night, with Hernandez taking the hill against the Blue Jays.

The bats, though, will have to do a 180 if it's not going to be another lost season in the Emerald City.