Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Mariners sail back into early contention

Not since the 2003 season have the Seattle Mariners been a consistent contending ball club. 
The Mariners won 93 games that season. It was a fourth consecutive year above the 90 victory mark for the team at that time.
But in the 13 full seasons since then, Seattle has not reached that 90 victory mark even once. In fact, a half-dozen times since then, the Mariners have lost more than 90 games. Twice they sank past the century mark in defeats.
There has been some hope in recent years. Seattle won 87 games in 2014. Then last season, their 86 victories left manager Scott Servais and the Mariners just three games shy of an AL Wildcard playoff berth.
Seattle began 2017 with hopes of reaching the MLB postseason for the first time since losing back-to-back in the ALCS in 2000 and 2001.
But a 2-8 start buried the team early. When they began the Memorial Day weekend by getting shut out in back-to-back games at Fenway Park, the M’s had fallen to 21-29 on the season.

SETTING SAIL ON A SEASON TURNAROUND

Seattle did the shutting out in that Memorial Day weekend series finale, beating the host Boston Red Sox by a 5-0 score. That began the team’s best stretch of play of the season.
In the midst of an 11-game home stand at Safeco Field, the Mariners have now won seven of eight games. They are now just two games shy of the .500 mark, a level that Seattle hasn’t reached since May 10.
There is virtually no hope of ever catching the first place Houston Astros in the AL West Division. Houston has run away from the divisional pack. The Mariners are tied for second place entering play on Tuesday night, a full 14 games behind Houston.
However, there are those two league Wildcard spots up for grabs, and it remains plenty early. The M’s are now just 2.5 games in back of Baltimore and Cleveland for the second of those playoff berths.

OFFENSIVE ATTACK HEATS UP

Offense has been a carrying feature during this hot stretch of play. The Mariners lineup has scored at least five runs in all seven of the victories. Twice they have reached double-digits. In sweeping the Tampa Bay Rays over the weekend, Seattle scored at least seven runs in each game.
You couldn’t blame the Rays if they never want to see Danny Valencia again after this weekend. The Mariners first baseman was a one-man wrecking crew in the sweep. Valencia went 9-10 with a walk, seven runs scored, and six RBI against Tampa.
The big explosion against the Rays came without one of Seattle’s best players. Jean Segura was lost for at least a couple of weeks when he suffered a right high ankle sprain last Thursday.
Segura is hitting for a .341 average and getting on base at a .391 clip. Despite missing all that weekend offense, his 29 runs scored remain tied for the club lead. His seven stolen bases are second on the team.
The shortstop, acquired in a big trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks back in December, was quoted on his status by Bob Dutton of The News Tribune.
“I don’t think this is going to take a month. Maybe a couple of weeks. We’ll see how it feels the next couple of days. If it feels good over the next couple of days, maybe I’ll do some activities. Right now, I’m just getting treatment to get the swelling down. It’s still bothering me a little bit, but it could have been worse. Thank God, it’s just a sprain.

GOOD MIX OF VETS AND ROOKIES

The biggest bat in the Mariners lineup has been the boom stick of DH Nelson Cruz. Turning 37 years old on July 1, the veteran is hitting for a .297/.379/.564 slash line. He leads the club with 14 homers, 45 RBI, and 24 extra-base hits.
Perennial all-star candidate, 34-year old veteran second baseman Robinson Cano, is having another solid season. Cano is hitting .282, and his 29 runs are tied for the Seattle team lead. His 10 homers, 34 RBI, and 20 extra-base hits are all second to Cruz on the Mariners team leader boards.
A trio of rookies are all contributing greatly to an improved Seattle attack. Outfielders Ben Gamel and Mitch Haniger (currently on the DL) are each hitting well above the .300 mark. They have combined for 41 runs scored, six home runs, and 32 RBI.
The third of the trio is utility man Taylor Motter. The 27-year old has appeared at both corner outfield spots, and at every position on the infield. He stepped in admirably to start at shortstop for Segura during the former’s two-week DL stint back in April, and is now reprising that role once again.

KING FELIX BEGINS WORKING BACK

On the mound, you would normally expect ‘King Felix’ to lead the Mariners staff. However, Felix Hernandez has been ineffectual this season, and is now on the Disabled List. He is now beginning the process of working back from a bout with bursitis in his pitching shoulder.
Mariners
Slated to make a rehab appearance tonight at Triple-A Tacoma, Hernandez will be on an innings limit. The Rainier’s manager, former big leaguer Pat Listach, was quoted by T.J. Cotterill of The News Tribune.
“If things go well, we’ll see where he stands and might send him straight to Seattle. But I think there’s a chance that if he doesn’t throw well and doesn’t feel great he could be here a little longer.”

ROTATION SLOWED BY INJURIES

Not only has Seattle lost its ace, they have also been without their projected #2 starter, Hisashi Iwakuma, for over a month now. The Japanese import is also battling shoulder woes.
Iwakuma tossed a couple of simulated innings on Saturday, his first time on a mound since his last start back on May 3. The hope is that if his rehab progresses without setbacks, Iwakuma can return to the rotation by the end of June.
In their absence, a pair of 28-year olds have stepped up big in the Seattle rotation. Ariel Miranda has gone 6-2 with a 3.74 ERA and 1.173 WHIP mark. The righty from Cuba has allowed just 55 hits in his 67.1 innings over a dozen starts with a solid 61/24 K:BB ratio.
James Paxton has been the Mariners best starter when available. He has a 4-0 record with outstanding 1.26 ERA and 0.930 WHIP marks. Paxton has yielded just 29 hits over 43 innings with a 51/11 K:BB ratio.
However, Paxton too has missed time with injuries, which have been a problem throughout his career. After being out for most of May, the lefty returned to the hill last week.
He didn’t miss a beat in completely shutting down a strong Colorado Rockies lineup. Paxton remaining healthy, especially while Hernandez and Iwakuma remain out, will be a key going forward.

BULLPEN HAS MOSTLY BEEN SOLID

In the bullpen, young closer Edwin Diaz was briefly removed from the role recently in order to work on some mechanical issues. Those quickly resolved themselves, and he has returned to closing down games. Diaz has nine Saves, allowing just 15 hits over 22.1 innings with a 29/12 K:BB ratio.
He has been setup by solid work from lefty James Pazos and right-handers Nick Vincent and Tony Zych. The hope is that veteran Steve Cishek, who just returned from his own DL stint, can further lengthen the Seattle bullpen.
John McGrath at The News Tribune quoted Servais on the recent turnaround in the Mariners fortunes.
“From where were about seven-eight days ago, to be at the point we are now, says a lot about our team and the makeup of the guys in the room, especially the leadership group. When things weren’t looking so good and they weren’t – I made the comment we were at rock bottom – our guys responded and I tip my hat to them. It’s about the players, and they stepped up.”
As the weather finally warms up in the Pacific Northwest, the local ball club is also warming up. If they can just find a way to get and stay healthy, the Mariners may well sail back into contention this season.

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