John McGrath

John McGrath: Sluggish starters, revolving roster, yet Mariners still in playoff pursuit

The Mariners’ run for a postseason berth this season has been a pleasant surprise with starters Felix Hernandez (shown), Taijuan Walker and James Paxton pitching a combined 15-16 record.
The Mariners’ run for a postseason berth this season has been a pleasant surprise with starters Felix Hernandez (shown), Taijuan Walker and James Paxton pitching a combined 15-16 record. The Associated Press

If you’re a sports fan returning from five months of solitude spent on a remote island without access to information, you will be surprised to learn the Mariners are playoff contenders.

It’s a high-effort team that’s fun to watch and easy to like, but let’s not kid ourselves: That 63-54 record the Mariners owned after Monday also could be 54-63.

As manager Scott Servais often points out, sustained success in baseball is predicated on starting pitching. The starters provide the trickle-down effect that generates everything else.

How are those starters doing?

The core of the rotation as presumed last winter — Felix Hernandez, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton — is a combined 15-16.

Felix remains an ace, albeit with diminished velocity and uncharacteristic control problems. Every fifth day he gives all he’s got, but what he’s got is nothing close to what he once had.

The gap between Walker’s potential and his performance has become frustrating enough to qualify as a crisis. Walker’s solid 2015 numbers in 29 starts — he finished 11-8, averaging more than eight strikeouts per nine innings — suggested a breakout season was awaiting the right-hander who turned 24 this past Saturday. He spent his birthday with the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers.

Paxton appeared to find his groove during the Mariners’ recent homestand, when he was on the verge of a complete-game victory.

A ninth-inning line drive off his left elbow denied him the opportunity, and though fears of a serious injury were allayed by the initial diagnosis — a bruise, no break — he was unable to make a scheduled start Monday night, and all bets are off on when he’ll make his next start.

Two-thirds into a season that began amid great expectations for them, Paxton and Walker have won four games apiece. Hernandez has won seven.

And yet the Mariners are alive and kicking, winning with a lineup patched together for short-term survival. Outfielders Seth Smith and Franklin Gutirrez are on their last legs. Another outfielder, Nori Aoki, was obtained as a one-year rental, as was fellow veteran Adam Lind.

A streaky slugger not acclaimed for his defensive prowess at first base, Lind made a barehanded grab of a bad-hop grounder Monday night, racing to the bag to beat out the Angels’ Ji-Man Choi by, oh, a tenth of a second.

The Mariners were leading when Lind revealed his seldom seen acrobatic side in the bottom of the sixth inning. They went on to win, 3-2, thanks to a bullpen once perceived as a middling team’s most conspicuous weakness.

Tom Wilhelmsen, who was traded to Texas during the offseason and reacquired after the Rangers released him in June, has been stellar as a set up guy for dazzling rookie closer Edwin Diaz.

When general manager Jerry Dipoto took on the task of rebuilding the Mariners this past October, Wilhelmsen and Diaz were not thought to be key contributors in 2016. Nor was starter Hisashi Iwakuma, a free agent seemingly destined for the Dodgers.

But Wilhelmsen returned with a vengeance, and Diaz arrived with triple-digit heat, and Iwakuma came back to serve as the ever-reliable anchor of an unreliable rotation.

The evolution of catcher Mike Zunino — from a flummoxed kid overwhelmed by big-league pitching into a poised pro capable of working the count — has been a bonus supplied by a refresher course with the Tacoma Rainiers. Another Rainiers grad, Shawn O’Malley, is producing in a utility role that recalls how valuable Mark McLemore and Stan Javier once were in Seattle.

Since McLemore and Javier gave manager Lou Piniella consistently appealing lineup options in 2001, the Mariners have enjoyed mid-August contention only a handful of times. They were in the thick of things in 2002 and 2003, as well as in 2007, when they were 73-53 — one game behind the Angels — on Aug. 24.

Two weeks later, the Mariners were nine games behind the Angels. Losing 13 of 14 will haunt you every time.

A similar swoon is conceivable in 2016, because this is not a particularly impressive team. The starting staff is shaky, miscues in the field and on the base paths are commonplace, and how long can an unproven bullpen be asked to save the day?

But the Mariners are in it, contending for a wild-card berth based on victories, not style points. And though they’re not experts at this playoff chase, they know the way:

Win today, and leave tomorrow to, well, tomorrow.

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