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Originally published April 7, 2014 at 4:20 PM | Page modified April 8, 2014 at 2:31 PM

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Mariners revival? Six things I learned from the 4-2 start

The Mariners showed some encouraging signs entering Tuesday’s home opener, but a 162-game season will sort out what’s real and what’s a cruel mirage.


Seattle Times columnist

Tuesday

Home opener, L.A. Angels @ Mariners, 7:10 p.m., ROOT Sports

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It’s time for an annual exercise in small sample-size analysis, which can often lead to conclusion-jumping, trend-misreading, and statistical over-reacting.

Let’s call it, “What We Can Learn From The First Week of the Mariners Season.” I’m tempted to say, “Absolutely nothing,” and move on (with a “harrumph” for emphasis), but where’s the fun in that?

So let’s understand from the start that it’s ... Just ... Six ... Games.

Six games amount to 3.7 percent of the season, which puts us, roughly, in the fourth quarter of the Seahawks’ opener, if you want to put the time frame in perspective. Richard Sherman hasn’t even had time to throw out his ceremonial first taunt.

But the Mariners will be carrying a 4-2 record into the pomp and pageantry of Tuesday’s home opener at Safeco Field. For fans thirsting for positive signs, that’s practically cause for a ticker-tape parade. The M’s haven’t returned home from their season-opening road trip with a winning record since 2009, which also was their last season above .500.

During the Mariners’ decisive sweep of the Angels by a combined 26-8 margin, it was fascinating to watch the fan mood transform, via social media, from tar-and-feathers to pennant fever. The series loss in Oakland, in which the offense hit just .191, compared to .309 against the Angels, only seems to have minimally dimmed the feel-good vibe.

And justifiably so. If you can’t get fired up now, when all good things are still possible, when can you? The most common statement I’ve heard when discussing the Mariners’ start with a variety of people is that something just feels different this year.

That’s hardly cutting-edge analysis, but I can’t argue. I’ve sensed the same thing, both in person for the Angels series, and watching on television for the Oakland games. Of course, one extended losing streak could make it feel exactly like recent years — oppressively depressing — but here are a few things that stand out:

• The players appear to be buying into the message of new manager Lloyd McClendon, whose mantra, “Unleash Your Talents,’’ is a T-shirt waiting to happen.

McClendon can be gruff, but there’s a smoldering intensity surrounding him that is infectious. He has shown he will fight for his players, whether it be his sharp retort to the Robinson Cano criticism from Yankees coach Kevin Long, or getting in the umpire’s face after a dubious called third strike that ended Sunday’s defeat.

McClendon also has displayed that he might be able to balance being demanding with the patience that comes from understanding the up-and-down nature of baseball.

• Those qualities are manifesting themselves most clearly with the fast starts of Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak. While it’s far too early to declare them “cured,” those two needed, more than anyone, to get out of the gate quickly, both to develop confidence and keep the nagging thoughts of “Here we go again” from creeping in.

• The Mariners have, potentially, a much deeper and more balanced lineup than in recent years, particularly if Ackley and Smoak maintain their revival. The shortstop and catcher positions, in particular, have been offensive black holes, but with Brad Miller and Mike Zunino ascending, the ratio of automatic outs should be much less dramatic.

• Cano changes the entire dynamic of the Mariners’ attack, which we knew in theory but are now seeing played out in practice. Combined with Felix Hernandez — who looks better earlier than he has in any recent season — there is a dual superstar presence that should have a trickle-down benefit throughout both the lineup and rotation.

• Speaking of the rotation, I pegged this as the Mariners’ No. 1 trouble spot heading into the season, while waiting for Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker to return from injuries. But it’s hard to argue with a 4-1 record and 2.65 earned-run average from the starters. Chris Young — who got robbed of his start by the “rainout” — said he believes Hernandez’s example is contagious.

“I was just blown away how competitive he is, and his focus and intensity, and just the way he carries himself,’’ Young said. “Obviously, it rubs off on you, and everyone wants to win when they see your ace out there with that mentality.”

• All these observations are encouraging, but might amount to nothing more than false noise over a grueling, unforgiving 162-game season.

Or they might be the first faint signs of a stunning revival. The Red Sox, coming off a 93-loss season in 2012, started out 4-2 last year and won the World Series.

Of course, the White Sox and Twins also started out 4-2, and they lost 99 and 96 games, respectively.

To put it another way: Harrumph.

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



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