Mariners in a race

Surprising Seattle rides its starters in AL West chase
by: COURTESY OF SEATTLE MARINERS Felix Hernandez remains the ace of a Seattle Mariners staff that is among the best in baseball.

SEATTLE - Veteran pitcher Jamey Wright had big things in mind during spring training when he envisioned what the Seattle Mariners could become this season.

'I was looking at the blueprint the (San Francisco) Giants used last year,' Wright said after Seattle's 5-4 loss to Atlanta Tuesday night at Safeco Field. 'They pitched and played defense and found a way to win games.'

The Mariners may not be en route to the World Series, but at 39-41 entering Wednesday's midway point of the regular season, they've been one of the surprise teams in baseball.

After finishing with an American League-worst 61-101 record a year ago, Seattle was expected to show improvement but not make dramatic strides this season under first-year manager Eric Wedge.

The Mariners find themselves in a three-way race for the AL West title, three games back of division leader Texas. Remarkable considering Seattle ranks last in the AL in batting average (.228) and on-base percentage (.296).

Even so, said center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, 'We have what it takes to be on the top of the division at the end' of the regular season.

The 36-year-old Wright, who has played with eight teams in his 13-year big-league career, had that kind of feeling from the start.

'I thought we had a lot better team than what people were giving us credit for,' Wright said. 'I knew we had the pitching.'

Seattle has arguably the best overall pitching staff in baseball, with a 3.23 ERA that ranks second in the AL, percentage points behind Oakland.

The Mariners boast two of baseball's premier starters in Felix Hernandez, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner, and Michael Pineda, a top candidate for the league's rookie of the year award.

Entering Wednesday's game with Atlanta, Hernandez was 8-6 with a 3.19 ERA, ranking second in the AL with 118 strikeouts. Pineda is 7-5 with a 2.65 ERA, eighth in the AL in strikeouts with 99. They were tied for the league lead in strikeouts per nine innings - 8.18.

The rest of the rotation - Eric Bedard (4-6, 3.00), Doug Fister (3-8, 3.18) and Jason Vargas (5-5, 3.88) - has been outstanding, even if the win-loss totals don't reflect it.

'A lot of us expected big things from Michael, but he has exceeded expectations,' Wright said. 'Our starters have been feeding off each other all year. They've put together as good a first half as on any team I've ever been with.'

The bullpen has been terrific, too, led by setup man David Pauley (5-1, 1.44) and including Aaron Laffey (1-1, 1.93) Wright (2-2, 3.18) and closer Brandon League (0-4, 3.58, league-best 21 saves).

Offense has been a different story. The M's have averaged about 3.4 runs per game, leaving Bedard, Fister and Vargas with a collective 12-19 record despite their stingy ERAs.

Promising rookies Dustin Ackley (.297, second base) and Greg Halman (.364, outfield) are off to good starts, but six of the regulars are batting under .250, including catcher Miguel Olivo (.222), Gutierrez (.195) and third baseman Chone Figgins (.186).

Right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, who turns 38 in October, has righted himself after the worst slump of his major-league career.

A 13-for-87 streak dropped his average to .252 before Wedge left him out of the lineup June 10 versus Detroit. Since then, Ichiro had gone 25 for 68 (.378) going into Wednesday's game against the Braves. He hit his first home run of the season on the first pitch of Tuesday night's contest.

'Better than zero,' he said with a shrug.

Ichiro ranks second in the AL in multi-hit games (33), fifth in stolen bases (20) and ninth in hits (91), but is still hitting only .276 - well shy of the .331 career mark he carried into the season.

'We need to get men on base and score more runs,' Gutierrez said. 'Right now, we're not getting that done. But we have good hitters. We'll do better.'

Wedge said his players have put in extra work with hitting coach Chris Chambliss.

'These guys are in the cage, doing a lot of video work, having a lot of conversations,' Wedge said. 'I don't want it to be Groundhog Day. I want to see improvement.

'We may not get results, but I want to see some adjustments. I want us to do a better job in hitter's counts and do a better job of fighting when we're behind in the count.

'I'd rather not be sitting here talking about this stuff, but it's where we're at. The sooner you look it right in the face, the sooner you can get to where you want to get to.'

Still, the M's aren't buried at the bottom of the standings. The second half of the season can be meaningful. That's more than most observers expected.

'We've scratched and clawed to get wins,' Wright said. 'Being in the race, it makes it a lot more fun to come to the ballpark. Last year about this time, these guys were singing a different tune.

'There are a lot of games if we'd gotten the timely hit … but we are where we are. If we can get some of these guys to get hot, we might have a lot of fun the second half.'