Friday, July 12, 2013
SEATTLE — That was, well, fun.
Frustrating, too, but we know to expect that when watching the Mariners. Fun? They’ve been rationing out fun as if we’re in an enjoyment depression.
For most of the past five years, they’ve been worse than a bad, bungling baseball team. They’ve been a boring, bad, bungling baseball team. While watching them, it has been difficult to decide whether to yell or yawn. But in recent weeks, their entertainment value — not to be confused with their winning percentage — has undergone dramatic change.
The Mariners have a different energy about them right now. They have a lineup of fighters. They have an offense that is currently functioning well throughout the entire batting order. They just scored 30 runs in a four-game series against the Boston Red Sox, the best team in the American League. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Mariners couldn’t score 30 runs in a four-game series against a rotation of batting-practice pitchers.
On the flip side, the Mariners somehow lost three of those four games, but, um, at least they created a new category of disappointment. It was atypical annoyance. Yes, that’s a low bar for praise, but hey, you work with what you’re given.
The Mariners played well enough to win three of four from the Red Sox, but they blew large early leads in two games, including Thursday’s 8-7 loss in 10 innings. As awful as it was to watch starters Hisashi Iwakuma and Erasmo Ramirez struggle against the potent Red Sox, as dreadful as the bullpen was in pressure situations, the slugfest losses were more compelling than a pair of 2-1 or 1-0 victories.
You’ve seen the Mariners pitch well and hit miserably in the past, and you know where that has led them. General manager Jack Zduriencik took over before the 2009 season and prompted this rebuilding process, and by far, it has been most difficult to improve the offense. The Mariners hit only .258 in 2009, .236 in 2010, .233 in 2011, .234 in 2012. They’ve averaged less than four runs per game in all of those seasons, bottoming out with a laughable 3.17 runs in 2010. This season, despite the recent uptick in production, they’re hitting just .242 and scoring 3.82 runs per game.
This is as bad as it gets for an American League offense over a five-year period. Admittedly, the poor production makes it easy to get carried away about random, fleeting excellence. But this edition of hope for the Mariners offense looks more legitimate by the day. “We’re certainly moving in the right direction, showing positive signs of life,” said outfielder Michael Saunders, who is hitting .293 in his last 14 games. “It looks like we’re going in a positive direction. I feel like we’re definitely turning the page offensively.”
Progress starts with the two new middle infielders at the top of the lineup. Shortstop Brad Miller, the new leadoff hitter, is having an impact in his first month in the majors. Second baseman Nick Franklin has established himself as an ideal No. 2 hitter since being promoted from Class AAA Tacoma in late May. Kendrys Morales and Kyle Seager have been consistently productive. Raul Ibanez has been surprisingly great. Justin Smoak is hitting .300 over his last 45 games. Rookie catcher Mike Zunino plays well in flashes and has been OK despite being forced into action. And now that Saunders is showing signs of breaking out of a major slump and Dustin Ackley is slowly finding his way, the Mariners’ lineup is getting production from the top, middle and bottom of the order for the first time in years.
They’re a more versatile offense, too, faster and better equipped to do more than just wait for the long ball.
“Our offense has been a lot better,” said manager Eric Wedge, whose team has hit a homer in a club record-tying 19 straight games. “That’s obvious.”
The Mariners have miles to travel before we can believe anything. You need to see them do it for the rest of the season before you assign your heart to the momentum. But it has been a long time since they’ve had this many players providing this much promise.
And you know what’s even better? Promise isn’t enough for these young players. They want to win. They won road series over playoff contenders Texas and Cincinnati, and they were competitive in losing to the Red Sox, so they’re 5-5 in their past 10 games against elite competition. But they want more.
Seager, who was 2 for 5 and hit his 14th homer Thursday, was asked about how good it felt to hit the ball out of the park early in the game. “You had a good day,” he was told.
“Yeah, but it’s better when you win,” he declared.
The winning will come if the Mariners can ever figure out how to make both sides of their baseball brain, the offense and the pitching/defense, function at the same time. It’ll be a frustrating process until then. But if they sustain this offensive progress, patience will be a more entertaining endeavor.