Mariners could be out of steam, but not hope
Injuries seem to be piling up on Mariners, but youthful exuberance provides hope
Seattle Times staff columnist
It was a meaningless home run, really.
The scoreboard read 5-1 in the eighth inning, another Mariners loss lumbering to a close, their seventh defeat in nine games, sigh oh sigh. Then the kid injected some hope into the skid.
Rookie second baseman Dustin Ackley clocked a 3-1 pitch from Atlanta Braves reliever Jonny Venters, one of the nastiest lefties in baseball, and watched it skim over the right-field wall for a two-run homer. The Mariners still lost, 5-3. They are fading, dwindling faster than envisioned. But somehow Ackley's homer, not to mention his commendable defense at a still-foreign position, helps frame the conversation about this baseball team.
Wednesday seemed to be the harbinger of a difficult second half for the Mariners. They've been surprisingly competitive thus far, but as July nears, this team is succumbing to its limitations. For all the unexpected thrills they've provided, they finished the first half of the 162-game season with a 39-42 record. They're on pace for a 78-84 record, which is on par with the popular preseason projections of 70-something wins for this ballclub.
They're streaky, so they could always get hot again, but that notion is tempered by the news that injuries are now affecting a team that had been blessed with good health. The most concerning news is that pitcher Erik Bedard, enjoying an incredible comeback season, has been placed on the 15-day disabled list because of a left knee sprain.
It will be the first time that any member of the Mariners' starting rotation, the team's dominant strength, has missed a start. Given Bedard's injury history, you always worry about how quickly he will heal. And let's not forget that he is also the team's best trade asset.
Besides Bedard, starting catcher Miguel Olivo didn't play Wednesday because of a sore leg that cramped up during Tuesday's game. Olivo's injury appears to be minor, but his temporary absence reminds the Mariners of two things: 1. They should be careful not to overuse Olivo, who has already appeared in 70 games. 2. They have some serious depth issues at that position.
Olivo's backup, Chris Gimenez, is on the disabled with a strained oblique. The Mariners turned to two catchers from Class AAA Tacoma to get through Wednesday's game. Josh Bard started and collected two hits. Bard's backup was 30-year-old Jose Yepez, who has only appeared in 28 minor-league games this season.
The Mariners still aren't hitting, and there are few reasons to believe this offense will improve significantly. When their pitching pony doesn't gallop, they have no tricks. The Atlanta Braves managed 13 runs against the Mariners' three best pitchers — Bedard, Michael Pineda and Felix Hernandez — and swept this series.
As the July 31 trade deadline approaches, it appears that we started dreaming too soon. By then, making a significant trade to acquire a bat might be a moot point. The Mariners might be out of contention and only interested in making a deal for the future. Or they might want to simply do just enough to remain interesting and focus on making the most of yet another rebuilding season.
The Mariners are in a strange situation. They're not contending. They're not pretending. They're just existing. After watching them lose 101 games for the second time in three years last season, it's hard to be disappointed about the first half of this season. At the same time, they have a losing record, and they have glaring offensive problems that can't be fixed easily. They're built to be erratic because they're so one-dimensional.
"We're going to go through stretches like this," manager Eric Wedge cautioned. "We've already been through stretches like this."
Wedge wants his team to relax and stay committed to improvement. He has done a brilliant job getting the most out of the Mariners so far, but the task will only grow more challenging in the final 81 games.
But there is reason for optimism. Mostly, it exists because so many young players have taken their big-league opportunities seriously. Right now, you especially see it in Ackley, who is truly a stop-everything-you're-doing-to-watch-him hitter. When you see Ackley, Pineda, Justin Smoak or any of the Mariners' youngsters competing and showing promise, then you remember there's a greater purpose behind this season.
Typical Mariners, they might find a way to infuriate you in the second half, but while doing so, they figure to leave traces of hope, just enough for you to find your way back to them next season.
It's neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It's just the reality of this team's rebuilding situation.
Contention is a difficult request right now. Hope, however, is not.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer
About Jerry Brewer
Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
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