Reasons to think Mariners can sustain their upswing
Which are the real Mariners? The ones we all griped about for the first three weeks, or the ones who have dazzled over the past eight games?
Seattle Times baseball reporter
Not to get all nostalgic on you, but try to think back, as hazy as the memories are getting, to when the Mariners were lousy, and their fan base was united in a mutinous rage.
You know — 10 days ago.
That was before Eric Wedge's intensity began to infiltrate the clubhouse by osmosis, before the word "timely" was accurately inserted in front of the word "hitting" for the first time in recent memory, before the Erik Bedard revival and Justin Smoak coming-out party and the discovery of a lockdown four-man bullpen.
Here's the question of the hour: Which are the real Mariners? The ones we all griped about for the first three weeks, or the ones who have dazzled over the past week-plus (Wednesday's 5-2 loss to the Rangers notwithstanding)?
I, for one, am not quite ready to proclaim the Mariners as long-range contenders, despite waking up Wednesday to see them within two games of first place in a tight AL West.
Even general manager Jack Zduriencik, the source of much angst as the Mariners limped to an 8-15 record before heading out on their reviving road trip to Detroit and Boston, cautioned Wednesday: "You know, it's one month. It's early. Of course, in the past week it's been exciting to watch and fun to watch. But you don't like to jump ahead of things because it's a long season and a whole lot of things can happen."
Yet I think it's fair to conclude — or at least strongly suspect — that the Mariners will not be the ciphers they appeared destined to be, yet again, at the outset of the season.
Wedge believes much of their recent success is attitudinal, the fruits of a toughness and fighting spirit — summed up in Wedge's most frequent phrase: "grinding" — he has preached from the day he was hired.
"(Fans) need to feel proud about the way these guys have had energy from pitch one of day one, and the way they've competed and the way they pull for each other, and just how hard they've worked," Wedge said. "That's a credit to them."
But all the grit in the world won't get you too far without talent and performance.
The Mariners still have a lineup sprinkled with way too many batting averages hovering around Mendoza. They have, by most advanced metrics, been a subpar defensive team.
Yet there is emerging an M.O. that could lead the Mariners to a destination north of dreadful — and in a better-case scenario provide the sort of progress and hope for the future that was going to be the benchmark for this season all along.
If Bedard's progress is not an illusion, the Mariners, with Michael Pineda's emergence as Felix Hernandez's Mini-Me (or maybe that should be Maxi-Me), can run out one of the most formidable rotations in the American League. And that's a nice nucleus to build around.
In Smoak, they seem to finally have the middle-of-the-order threat they've longed for, for so long.
And Wedge has skillfully unearthed the optimal bullpen rotation to build a bridge to closer Brandon League, who has been a revelation.
At some point, presumably, they will have Franklin Gutierrez, David Aardsma and Shawn Kelley back on the roster, not to mention the arrival of Dustin Ackley, and Wedge will have more and better options.
In baseball, perhaps more than other sports, success tends to beget success — and vice versa. The Mariners had fallen into such a deep morass that they are thriving upon the good vibes that have suddenly developed.
"It's contagious," reliever David Pauley said. "You have a couple guys doing well, and everyone else picks up a little bit. You start winning, and it gets fun. When you're out there and you're loose and having fun, it makes it easier to roll through."
Chone Figgins said of their recent success, "It puts you in a rhythm. Hitting, pitching, defense, anything you do is rhythm. We've been consistently getting in a rhythm, getting clutch hits, making big defensive plays when we need to, making a pitch, getting a big hit. It's something we need to keep building on."
Ultimately, for the Mariners, it will be about sustainability. If this little stretch of success evaporates, and they revert to their old stumbling ways, the ill-will from that previous Mariner era — 10 days ago — will be back in a nanosecond.
"That'll be one of the things we have to continue to work for in the future," Wedge said. "You've got to know what you can be able to come to the ballpark and count on. ... You're going to have good days and bad days, but you've got to have a level of play that you can sustain."
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
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