SEATTLE — There is no single factor that explains the Seattle Mariners’ rise this year from perennial doormat to legitimate postseason contender.
The mega-signing last December of All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano certainly reset the franchise and meshed well with the no-excuses attitude new manager Lloyd McClendon brought from Detroit.
Cano’s arrival and McClendon’s approach seemed to rejuvenate staff ace Felix Hernandez who, after two merely solid years, is putting together perhaps the finest season of his much-decorated career.
Many within the organization cite the heightened maturity and confidence of a mostly homegrown roster.
“We’re in a good spot right now,” said general manager Jack Zduriencik, who received a multiyear contract extension earlier this week. “I think, if you really look at this objectively, we put a plan in place. We didn’t deviate from it.”
Third baseman Kyle Seager emerged this year as an All-Star. Catcher Mike Zunino displays advanced catch-and-throw skills in addition to a power bat. Left fielder Dustin Ackley shows increased signs of realizing his potential.
And the infield’s defense spiked upward following the late July arrival of rookie shortstop Chris Taylor, who also is batting .325 since his promotion from Triple-A Tacoma.
“Nobody here is really panicking anymore,” Ackley said. “We all know what we’re capable of doing.”
Nowhere, though, are all elements of the Mariners’ turnaround better exemplified than in a reconfigured bullpen that is bidding to establish itself as the best American League unit in the designated hitter (post-1972) era.
“The only thing about our bullpen,” McClendon said, “if you really think about it, is we added two veterans in Joe Beimel and (Fernando) Rodney.
“Everybody else was able to be slotted into, probably, the proper roles — where they weren’t overexposed; they weren’t overused. As a result, they’ve been fantastic.
“Now, did I think they were going to be this good? No. This is historical-type stuff that we’re doing now. It’s been pretty special to watch.”
The Mariners’ relief corps leads the American League with a 2.37 ERA. No other club, through Wednesday, was closer than Cleveland’s 2.80. The Mariners also lead the AL in limiting opponents to a .213 batting average.
That 2.37 ERA also ranks second to the 1990 Oakland A’s among AL clubs for a full season in the DH era. Those A’s, headed by Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley, compiled a 2.35 mark.
(The 1981 Yankees, in a strike-shortened season, had a 2.26 ERA).
Rodney, at 37, has been everything the Mariners hoped for when they plucked him from the free-agent market on the eve of spring training with a two-year deal for $16 million.
His 2.19 ERA is the second-best of his 12-year career, and his 38 saves (in 41 chances) trail only Kansas City’s Greg Holland (40) among the league’s closers.
“It’s the confidence he has in his stuff,” Zunino said. “He can shrug stuff off and go attack guys. He has the ability to strike guys out when he needs to. He just kicks it up to that next gear.”
Rodney’s arrival turned Danny Farquhar into a backup closer, and the closer whom Farquhar replaced, Tom Wilhelmsen, into a long reliever once the Mariners jettisoned Hector Noesi in early April.
Rookie Dominic Leone replaced Noesi on the roster and ate middle innings, mostly in low-leverage situations, while Beimel combined with Charlie Furbush to furnish McClendon with two tough lefty elements.
The toughest outs often fall to right-hander Yoervis Medina, whose repertoire of hard stuff with movement makes him the first choice in the eighth inning of close games, particularly against the middle of the order.
“His slider has gotten better,” McClendon said. “He’s buckled some guys. Particularly right-handed hitters. And the sinker is just explosive. He gets better each and every time out.”
Medina’s hit and strikeout totals are similar to what he posted last year as a rookie, but his walks are way down. McClendon says that’s because of the confidence that now coats the entire unit.
“A little mojo,” McClendon said. “A little better walk. Rodney and Beimel have a lot to do with that. That’s that X-factor (with veterans) that you can’t quantify with numbers.”
What had been a seven-man unit got a boost after the June conversion of struggling starter Brandon Maurer to the bullpen. Maurer has a 1.98 ERA in 28 relief appearances with 28 strikeouts in 28 innings.
“It’s just having confidence,” he said. “I didn’t have any confidence earlier. That’s the big upgrade in my game.”
Maurer’s emergence prompted the Mariners to roll with an eight-man bullpen — one pitcher more than normal — and enabled McClendon to avoid overtaxing anyone during high-use stretches.
“Our bullpen is our foundation,” McClendon said. “We’ve done everything we can to try to take care of them, and we’ll continue to do that.”
The bullpen depth sparkled last weekend when the Mariners swept three games in Boston with comeback victories after the starters lasted just 5 2/3 innings, 3 2/3 innings and 2 1/3 innings.
The bullpen shackled the Red Sox in each game in yielding just one run in 15 1/3 innings while accumulating two saves, three victories and four holds. A big key, as it has been all year, was shutdown innings in middle relief.
“Wilhelmsen has been the glue that’s held our bullpen together,” McClendon said. “Time and time again, he’s pitched 3 or 3 1/3 (innings) of shutdown baseball.”
It’s an often unglamorous role, particularly for a former closer, but Wilhelmsen is thriving in it with a 2.06 ERA in 70 innings over 47 appearances.
“That’s what makes Seattle so tough,” a scout from a rival club said. “Their rotation is good, but say you get one of them out of there. With other teams, you get a mop-up guy, and a three-run lead becomes a five-run lead.
“Here, you get Wilhelmsen or Maurer or that Leone kid, and they’re all throwing gas. Not just hard but nasty hard. And it only gets tougher in the later innings.”
Those in the group admit they feed off each other and take their cue from Rodney, who punctuates each save with a flamboyant arrow-shooting pantomime.
“Everyone is feeling real good,” Wilhelmsen said. “We’re strong. We’re healthy. We pick each other up and win ballgames. It’s been great.”
Great at a near-record pace.
“We have three or four closers,” Rodney said. “Tommy, Farquhar, Medina and me. We can all close the game. They can all throw three days in a row. That’s what makes it a tough bullpen.
“When you have a bullpen like that, you can go a long way and win a lot of games.”
The Mariners responded to the animal-cruelty incident involving the head of the company that handles concessions at Safeco Field by announcing plans to donate a portion of September proceeds to the Humane Society for Seattle/King County.
An elevator surveillance camera in Vancouver, B.C., caught Centerplate chief executive officer Des Hague dragging a Doberman puppy by the leash and kicking it several times.
Centerplate is a Connecticut-based sports catering company that handles concessions at Safeco Field and hundreds of other venues around the world. Hague has been its CEO since 2009.
“The Mariners deplore animal cruelty,” club president Kevin Mather said in a statement released by the club. “As the owner of two dogs, I was personally offended by what he did.
“In support of all those who are outraged by his behavior, we are pledging a portion of the proceeds from the sales at Safeco Field concession stands during games in September to the Humane Society for Seattle/King County in the hope that something positive can come from this incident.”
Centerplate did not fire Hague but ordered him to make a $100,000 donation for the safety and protection of animal in Vancouver. He also was ordered to perform 1,000 hours of community service.
McClendon will miss the games Friday and Saturday against the Nationals in order to attend the wedding Saturday of his only daughter, Schenell, in Chesterton, Indiana.
Bench coach Trent Jewett will serve as the interim manager in McClendon’s absence. McClendon’s plans call for him to return in time for Sunday afternoon’s series finale.
It was 24 years ago Friday — Aug. 29, 1990 — that the Mariners signed free-agent outfielder Ken Griffey Sr., who had been released Aug. 18 by Cincinnati.
The move united Griffey with son Ken Griffey Jr.
Griffey Sr. responded by batting .377 (29-for-77) with three homers and 18 games over the remainder of the season. He remained with the Mariners through the following May before retiring.