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M's optimistic, if not talented

Seattle pitching staff has question marks but players talk of 'different feeling'
by: OTTO GREULE JR./GETTY IMAGES, Felix Hernandez turned in a “Sandy Koufax-like performance,” on opening day, says pitching coach John McLaren.

SEATTLE - The Seattle Mariners go into today's road opener against Cleveland with a .177 collective batting average and a winning record.

Quality openers by 1-2 starters Felix Hernandez and Jarrod Washburn allowed the Mariners to beat Oakland two of three games at Safeco Field to start the 2007 season.

Problem is, the mantra of Seattle fans this season may wind up being 'Hernandez and Washburn and pray for their next turn.'

Oakland raked No. 3 starter Miguel Batista for 10 hits and eight earned runs in 4 2/3 innings in Wednesday's 9-0 whitewash of the M's as the A's salvaged the final game of the series.

Today, another offseason acquisition, Horacio Ramirez, will be on the mound for Seattle against Cleveland. On Saturday, newcomer Jeff Weaver will be the starter.

The performance of Batista, Ramirez and Weaver, along with an unaccomplished legion of middle relievers, may be the key to Seattle's hopes of contending with defending champion Oakland and Anaheim for the American League West title.

The Mariners are off to a good start, twice beating a team they went 2-17 against a year ago en route to a 78-84 season.

'To go 2-1 in our first series, especially against Oakland - that's not bad,' infielder Jose Lopez says. 'We played well. We have a pretty good team with a chance to win a lot of games.'

Of course, if the position players don't hit better than they did in the Oakland series, the Mariners will be on to their fourth-straight losing campaign.

Perennial Seattle-killer Rich Harden stoned the Mariners, limiting them to three hits in seven sterling innings. But Harden sounds as if he thinks the M's could be division contenders.

'They have a lot of dangerous bats in that lineup,' he says. 'Hey, they beat us two out of three. I think they're a better team than they were last season.'

So does Seattle manager Mike Hargrove, who was buoyed by winning the first series with Oakland.

'It tells us we can compete in our division, which is what we thought going in,' says Hargrove, in the final year of a three-year contract. 'We're not trying to make statements. We're not trying to do anything other than win every game we play.

'I feel good about our ballclub. The players feel good about themselves. We have a chance to make it a fun season for all of us.'

GM Bill Bavasi brought in Batista, Ramirez and Weaver to fill in the back end of the rotation and acquired veterans Jose Vidro and Jose Guillen to take over the designated hitter and right field spots.

Vidro, batting third, is off to a 1-for-11 start. Guillen is 2 for 9 with four strikeouts.

Richie Sexson, on the other hand, is at a 108-homer pace. The veteran first baseman and Vancouver, Wash., resident, who started very slowly last season before coming on to finish with 34 homers and 107 RBIs, homered in each of the first two games. And there is leadoff man Ichiro Suzuki, now entrenched in center and, with four hits in three games, on his way to his seventh straight 200-hit season.

Hernandez slims down

Hernandez was sensational in Monday's opener, taming the A's on three hits with a career-best 12 strikeouts - a 'Sandy Koufax-like performance,' according to bench coach John McLaren.

'If he pitches like that every game,' Hargrove cracks, 'he'll win 35 games.'

Hernandez, who turns 21 on Sunday, won't approach Denny McLain territory. But the 6-3 right-hander lost 20 pounds in the offseason and is at a more svelte 225. A year ago, some experts prematurely called him a Cy Young candidate, and he finished 12-14 with a 4.52 ERA.

'I just want him to be consistent,' pitching coach Rafael Chaves says. 'We can't expect Felix to pitch that way every single time out. I always tell him, 'You're young and so talented, a lot of people expect you to be perfect, and you're not. Try to be even keel, don't get your hopes too high, allow your talent to work. Always shoot for better, but it's impossible to be perfect.' '

Could Hernandez be a 20-game winner this year?

'Well, he only needs 19 more,' Chaves says with a grin. 'He has the talent to do that, but I don't worry about winning 20 games. He just has to pitch like he can, and everything will take care of itself.'

Putz anchors bullpen

Hernandez will be better than 12-14 this year, and Washburn should be better than the 8-14 mark he posted last season in his first year as a Mariner.

'We have five very solid starters,' Washburn says, bravely. 'Felix has a chance to dominate every time he takes the mound, and the other four are going to give you solid starts. Hopefully, we can all be consistent.'

If the Mariners can turn it over to ace closer J.J. Putz with a lead in the ninth inning, they should be in business. But with Rafael Soriano traded to Atlanta and Mark Lowe lost after elbow surgery, middle relief is a question mark.

'Every bullpen is anchored by its closer, and we have one of the best in the game,' says new Mariner Chris Reitsma, who pitched a scoreless middle-relief inning Tuesday. 'That makes our job a lot easier. Our whole goal is to get the ball to him in the ninth. That's our mentality. We have a lot of good arms out there.'

If the Mariners don't get it together this season, Bavasi and Hargrove are probably gone. Their players are convinced it won't come to that.

'We have good pitching, good offense, good defense,' Hernandez says. 'We still have to prove it, but we can win the division. We're right there with the best teams. We're going to surprise some people.'

'There has been a different feeling here from the time spring training started,' says left fielder Raul Ibanez, the Seattle MVP a year ago with a career-best 33 homers and 123 RBIs. 'It's definitely a better team in every way. There's a lot more energy, a lot of positive talk all around.

'A reasonable goal is to win the division, whatever that takes … 95, 100 wins? We might be able to do better than that. But this is a postseason-caliber club. Anything less than that would be a disappointment.'

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