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Originally published May 18, 2013 at 5:17 PM | Page modified May 18, 2013 at 7:54 PM

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Mariners may have reason for optimism after a slow start

Such a sentiment in mid-May is probably just as premature as the pessimism of late April. But certainly there is now a road map to respectability that provides some hope of sustainability, particularly with the potential for reinforcements in the second half, via the minor leagues and the trade market.

Times baseball reporter

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Remember a long, long time ago when the Mariners appeared to be in shambles, fans were girding for an uprising, and jobs seemed to be on the line — on the field, and in the dugout and front office?

Yeah, that was way back on April 24 — a full three weeks ago.

It's amazing how time flies — and bad memories evaporate — when a team starts winning. Back then, the M's had just finished a dreadful trip to Texas, dropping three straight to the Rangers and, most damaging, two out of three (for the second time in barely a week) to the Astros.

The season, it seemed, was already shot. Recrimination dominated the conversation. All the optimism of spring training seemed foolish, in retrospect.

Now all is sunshine and roses for the Mariners, who did nothing but win series, and hearts, after their 8-15 nadir.

The new issue now is whether or not all this is sustainable. Suddenly, gloom has been replaced by giddiness — at least after they took two out of three in the Bronx.

Thursday, the Mariners held on for a tense 3-2 victory over the Yankees that pulled them past the A's into second place in the AL West. Friday, ESPN's Jim Bowden wrote an article headlined, "Mariners are going to contend all summer."

Such a sentiment in mid-May is probably just as premature as the pessimism of late April. But certainly there is now a road map to respectability that provides some hope of sustainability, particularly with the potential for reinforcements in the second half, via the minor leagues and the trade market.

Poring over the statistics, there is little mystery to the Mariners' revival. They hit much better, and they pitched much better. In the first 23 games of the season, which yielded that horrifying 8-15 record, the M's scored 3.2 runs per game, and gave up 4.8 runs per game. In the next 18, through the Yankees series, they scored 4.4 runs per game, and gave up 2.9 runs per game.

When you add more than a run per game to your offense, and take away nearly two runs per game from the opposition, victories tend to happen. And the Mariners went 12-6 — a .667 winning percentage.

Looking more closely, the Mariners had a .228 batting average, .292 on-base percentage and .363 slugging percentage over the first 23 games, for an OPS of .655 — 10 points below their final tally for last season, when Seattle ranked last in the American League. So much for the new and improved offense.

But in the more recent 18-game stretch, they've begun to hit the way they hoped for when adding the likes of Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay during the winter: a .256 average, .336 on-base percentage, .421 slugging and .757 OPS.

Those are respectable numbers, particularly when combined with a staff that put up a 2.83 ERA over that same 18-game stretch (down from 4.65 over the first 23).

The Mariners still have a top-heavy rotation, dominated by Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. But that, to me, is a huge cause for optimism, because having two aces is such a rare and valuable commodity. If they could just get league-average performance from the other three, they are in business.

Easier said than done, obviously. But if the improvement doesn't come from those already on the roster, they should have options looming in the second half. Danny Hultzen was pitching lights out in Tacoma before being sidelined with a rotator-cuff strain. That's an ominous-sounding diagnosis, but the Mariners don't feel it's serious. He's about ready to start throwing again, and we'll see if he can get back on the fast track.

Erasmo Ramirez, targeted for the rotation in spring training, is rehabbing from his biceps injury and could be a second-half boost to the rotation. Veteran Jeremy Bonderman has been pitching well in Tacoma. So has lefty James Paxton after a rocky start, lowering his ERA to 3.93 with 44 strikeouts and 17 walks in 36-2/3 innings.

Also, short-term veterans will be available on the trade market if the Mariners are truly in a position to make a run at a playoff berth. The bullpen, already a strength, has the potential to get better with the return of Stephen Pryor and Josh Kinney.

Offensively, I think there's reason to believe this spurt is closer to their true ability. They have gotten huge boosts from Ibanez (who had a 1.316 OPS during that 18-game stretch) and Bay, who was at .921 in the same period. Those two combined for seven homers and 20 RBI.

But the key to their long-term hopes this season remains the three-headed group of Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero. Though they have all improved somewhat, none of the three are even close to providing satisfactory production.

That's a big part of the lineup underperforming, and the point is going to come where either they improve, or the Mariners are going to have to look elsewhere. But that provides the prospect of an offensive boost, either from those players, the minor leagues (Nick Franklin, Mike Zunino and/or someone else) or from a trade.

It will be quite interesting to see how the Mariners maneuver at the trade deadline, having numerous players on the last year of their contract (Morse, Morales, Michael Saunders, Ibanez, Franklin Gutierrez), and also in the position of possibly needing help in various spots. They might walk that fine line and be both sellers and buyers — but that will obviously depend largely on where they stand come mid-July.

That's two months away, so it's too soon to obsess quite yet (that time will come; be patient). What this next stretch will tell is which Mariners team is for real — the one that started the season so miserably, or the one that rebounded so impressively.

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


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