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Originally published August 21, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 24, 2007 at 9:08 PM

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M's tee off on Twins

There was no underestimating the importance of the more veteran Mariners sluggers hitting all of those bad pitches they saw the first few...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Today

Mariners at Twins, 5:10 p.m., FSN/KOMO 1000 AM

Pitchers: M's Jarrod Washburn (8-10, 4.16) vs. Scott Baker (6-5, 4.53)

MINNEAPOLIS — There was no underestimating the importance of the more veteran Mariners sluggers hitting all of those bad pitches they saw the first few innings.

Raul Ibanez saw two of them and sent both screaming beyond the outfield fence. Richie Sexson got hold of another and took it for a 413-foot ride to the bleachers. It was batting practice all over again against Minnesota Twins starter Matt Garza, who seemed to have never met a pitch he couldn't put in someone's wheelhouse.

But the most important element to the early Mariners power barrage in this 9-4 win on Monday night wasn't merely that they were hitting a bunch of fat, juicy pitches. It was all of the hittable pitches they were no longer missing.

"I think that there have been good pitches to hit," said Ibanez, who had three of his team's 15 hits. "I'm just not missing them."

Ibanez and Sexson have had their share of mistake pitches all season. But they had missed often, fouling some straight back, or popping the ball up instead of sending it soaring in an arc.

The crowd of 31,755 at the Metrodome didn't see many pop-ups the first three innings as the Mariners built a 7-1 lead by the third inning on the strength of four home runs. Kenji Johjima capped the early barrage with a two-run homer off Garza in the third inning after narrowly missing one on a ball caught at the lip of the fence to end the first inning.

That was enough for an improved-looking Horacio Ramirez to breeze through 7-1/3 innings for the victory. Ramirez used a new hand motion to find a consistent release point and nearly got through eight innings on just two runs allowed.

But a botched double-play opportunity by second baseman Jose Lopez cost Ramirez two more runs and ended his night a little sooner. It didn't matter all that much, as Ramirez lowered his earned run average from 7.38 to 7.15 and his team assured of picking up at least some ground in one of its playoff races.

The New York Yankees and Los Angeles Angels opened a three-game series on Monday, meaning each Mariners win here guarantees them of gaining a game in either the division or wild-card race.

It has been a magical month of August for Ibanez, hitting .431 with nine homers and 20 runs batted in over his last 16 games. Much of it has to do with shortening his stride to the plate, something he had worked on tirelessly in batting practice before it finally clicked in games.

"You always want to not miss your pitch, but it's a hard game," Ibanez said. "It's a hard thing to do. When things are going well, you want to keep doing what you're doing and just ride it well."

Sexson is slowly starting to turn things around this month as well, having hit at a sub-.200 clip for most of the season. He now has hits in 11 of his last 13 games, with four doubles and three home runs.

As with Ibanez, the ability to jump on a pitcher's mistake has been key.

"It's getting better for the most part," said Sexson, who jumped on a first-pitch fastball from Garza and crushed it over the center-field wall with Adrian Beltre aboard in the first inning. "I've been able to hit my pitches when I get them and that's always key."

Sexson shrugs when asked why he has been able to do that now. He has no idea, other than figuring all the work he has put in behind the scenes with hitting coach Jeff Pentland is finally paying dividends.

"It's a work in progress," Sexson said.

Work the M's coaching staff and front office is desperately counting on. Mariners manager John McLaren spoke semi-seriously before the game about noticing online criticism he has taken from fans for continuing to play Ibanez and Sexson.

McLaren added that he loves any good baseball debate and knows fans are eager to see more of hot outfield prospect Adam Jones. McLaren plans some moves in coming days aimed at resting regulars for the stretch run, but he made it clear he's counting on his veterans come September.

"This is the real deal here," McLaren said. "And these games, I mean, these are meaningful games. We'd love to get some guys experience but our job is to win the game every night. That's the bottom line."

McLaren agreed after the game that Ibanez and Sexson weren't always jumping on mistakes like they did in the first inning here. More than anything, that may have compounded their slumps.

"When you're not going well, you get your pitch and you foul it back," McLaren said. "And that's where it really eats at you. Because you know you had your pitch. You know you were there on your approach. You know you had your pitch and you know you didn't do anything with it.

"It's a head game. And I think we're well down the road with that."

Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or gbaker@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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