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Originally published May 12, 2014 at 9:53 PM | Page modified May 13, 2014 at 11:23 AM

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Timely hitting a key to the Mariners’ success so far

With Justin Smoak leading the way, Mariners are hitting in the clutch


Seattle Times columnist

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Curious team, these Mariners.

Just when they were written off as dead and buried, they unleashed the power of the non-panic to resurrect their season. And yet, as you look at them, it can be hard to figure out how.

The defense has been spotty. James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, the highly touted young guns, have two starts between them. Erasmo Ramirez quickly pitched his way back to Tacoma, with center fielder Abraham Almonte right behind him. Shortstop Brad Miller, his average below .170, is on red alert.

In fact, the entire offense has appeared, on the surface, to be typically stagnant (Monday’s 14-hit, 12-run output notwithstanding). They entered the game Monday ranked in their usual spots: 26th in batting average (.231), 27th in on-base percentage (.294), 24th in slugging (.366) and 27th in OPS (.661). Robinson Cano has one homer, and Kyle Seager needed 23 games to get his average over .200.

Yet they’ve somehow managed to make it work. The 12-5 romp Monday romp over Tampa Bay gave them 13 victories in 18 games since the eight-game losing streak that seemed to condemn their season.

Let’s start there, and give due credit to manager Lloyd McClendon for refusing to let his team succumb to the doomsday mood that ran rampant at that time. He did it by acting like nothing was wrong; or, more accurately, that there was ample time to correct it.

“That was different. I’ve never been on a team that lost that many in a row without the manager losing it,’’ said reliever Danny Farquhar. “I guess that shows his patience and his confidence in us. Don’t panic just because you lose a couple in a row.”

That message was augmented by a players-only meeting before a home game at the height of their struggles. Veterans like Cano, John Buck and Willie Bloomquist reinforced the no-panic mantra.

The Mariners have gotten huge boosts in the rotation from rookie Roenis Elias and veteran Chris Young. The bullpen, overworked for a stretch, is settling into their roles in support of the sometimes erratic closer, Fernando Rodney, who nonetheless has a league-leading 11 saves. Outfielder James Jones has at times been electrifying in his brief major-league stint.

The Mariners also seem to have at least partially unlocked the secret to one of their biggest undoings in recent years: Timely hitting.

I hesitate to use the word “clutch” because of all the controversy surrounding that concept. But the fact is the Mariners last year ranked 28th in OPS with runners in scoring position (.677), 27th in 2012 (.696), 30th in 2011 (.631) and 30th in 2010 (.644).

That’s called a trend. But heading into Monday’s game — during which they prospered in such situations against the Rays with six hits in 10 at-bats — the Mariners were fifth in the majors with their .757 OPS with runners in scoring position. With runners in scoring position and two outs, they lead the majors at .817.

It’s still too early to declare them clutch mavens but it’s an encouraging development that helps to explain their recovery. And to explain why, despite ranking so low in other offensive categories, they were in the middle of the pack — 17th — in runs scored even before Monday’s outburst.

“I hope it’s something that can be learned,’’ McClendon said of Seattle’s scoring-position success. “We try to stress, know pitchers, know what they’re going to do in certain situations. I think it’s paid off to this point.”

It’s a message that’s definitely being heard.

“Obviously, McClendon is bringing that attitude here that we’re going to be successful, it’s going to work,’’ Seager said. “And you bring in the guys we’ve brought in, your Canos and what not, that’s a different mindset, a different confidence level than we’ve had here. Plus, a lot of the guys, we’ve been through it a few years. It’s time for all of us to start producing.”

Justin Smoak puts himself in that category, and his turnaround in clutch situations has been stunning. Before Monday, Smoak led the majors with two-out RBI (17) and was hitting .533 with two outs and runners in scoring position. After belting a two-run homer in the eighth, Smoak is on pace for a 38-double, 25-homer, 111-RBI season.

“It’s about being more comfortable in the box,’’ Smoak said. “Just going up there with a plan against a certain guy, a guy you’ve faced in the past and you somewhat know what he’s going to do to you.

“Guys are starting to show what they’re capable of. The last two or three years have been a grind for a lot of us, myself included. It’s one of those things where we’re starting to piece it together, piece by piece.”

The result, Smoak said, is a growing confidence, replacing the old feelings of doubt.

“You’re not up there trying to search for something,’’ he said. “You’re going up there expecting to do something every time at the plate, and that’s how it should be.”

McClendon had a good laugh before the game as he showed to the media a scented candle that sent a vanilla fragrance wafting through his office.

“It’s a good smell, isn’t it?” he said. “It’s a very peaceful smell.”

For a short span this season, the Mariners stunk, and now they don’t.

The upcoming months will show if the cleansing is permanent.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @StoneLarry



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