John McGrath: After 50 games, .500 Mariners are OK with being in the middle

Staff WriterMay 27, 2014 

A day after their “why-even-bother?” performance against the worst team in the league, the Seattle Mariners returned Monday to Safeco Field and put on a baseball fundamentals clinic before the hottest team in the league.

The Mariners’ first batter of the game, James Jones, beat out an infield dribbler. Their next batter, Michael Saunders, put down a bunt and was safe when the pitcher threw the ball to the wrong guy in the general vicinity of first base. Robinson Cano followed with an RBI single to center, and the Mariners were off and running toward a 5-1 victory over the resurgent Los Angeles Angels.

Whatever the Mariners were Sunday during their series-splitting defeat to the Houston Astros — lethargic, punchless, indifferent — there was 180 degrees of difference Monday. The contrast posed a question: Which team is the real Seattle Mariners?

“I learned a long time ago that you’re never as good as you think you are, and never as bad as you think you are,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “You’re probably somewhere in the middle.”

And while there’s a better somewhere to be — over the rainbow, for one — there’s also a worse somewhere to be.

“We’re around .500,” said Saunders of the Mariners, who improved to 25-25. “I feel like being there, with what’s kind of gone on with the injuries out of spring training, it means we’re playing pretty well.”

During the first two months of the season, McClendon took a let’s-wait-and-see approach to assessing his new team. A better time to evaluate, he insisted, was after 50 games.

Monday, it turned out, was game No. 50. His thoughts?

“I like my team,” he said. “I like where we are. Is there room for improvement? Of course there is. But that’s a gutsy bunch out there. They show up every day, and it’s nice to look in their eyes and know they’re not afraid of the opponent. They go about business the right way.

“I wanted them to take on my personality, and I think they have. They’re a pretty tough bunch.”

More quantifiable than the no-fear look in the Mariners’ eyes is their obvious strength, exemplified Monday by right-handed starter Chris Young. The veteran, acquired at the end of spring training as a temporary Band-Aid for a staff whose only healthy, reliable starter was Felix Hernandez, held the Angels without a hit until a one-out single in the sixth.

“Pitching is our foundation,” McClendon said.

The Mariners’ starting pitching has been very good, and it figures to get even better once James Paxton and Taijuan Walker are activated from the disabled list. A benefit of quality starting pitching is that six or seven runs aren’t required to win.

But the offense has to score some, which brings us to a component key to beating the Angels and, in a larger sense, competing in general: using speed and aggressive base running to manufacture runs.

Jones’ infield single in the first gave Saunders an idea.

“I was bunting for a base hit,” he said, “with the worst-case scenario being that Jones is in scoring position for Robby (Cano), who’s one of the premier RBI guys in the game. The more opportunities we can get with runners in scoring position for him, the better off we’ll be.”

A two-out error charged to Angels shortstop Erick Aybar set the stage for the three-run rally that broke things open in the bottom of the second. The inning included a Saunders triple and stolen bases by Dustin Ackley, Jones and Cano.

Until Monday, the Mariners hadn’t stolen more than one base in a home game. That they stole three in one inning suggests they might have found a way to score runs while awaiting a proven right-handed hitter who may or may not be acquired.

It also suggests the potential to think of the potential home-field advantage in Seattle, still not an ideal destination for long-ball thumpers but more than agreeable to athletic outfielders such as Jones and Saunders.

The Mariners are only 11-12 at Safeco Field, which is head-scratching because they’re 14-13 away from it.

“We need to improve our record at home,” McClendon said. “This is our house, and we need to protect it. We haven’t done as good a job as we should have at home, but I think we’ll be better as it starts to warm up a bit.

“We protect our home turf and play a little better than .500 on the road, we’ll be OK.”

After 50 games, with a 25-25 record, the Mariners are the quintessence of OK. If the best is yet to come, the Mariners on Monday offered a glimpse of what it will look like.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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