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Some of you keep asking me, since I like to measure baseball in 10-game increments, to write something about how manager Don Wakamatsu’s Mariners did in their second 10 games of the current season. I couldn’t do it right at the 20-game mark, since that occured between games of Tuesday’s doubleheader. The M’s are now 22 games into the season, sporting a 13-9 record. But this 10-game thing doesn’t have to be scientific, right on the nose or anything.
The first 10 games saw the M’s go 7-3. Since then, they’ve been 6-6 and were 5-5 in the second 10 contests. And I think that’s just about right, The Mariners essentially treaded water for most of the past two weeks after that great first week and a half of their schedule.
And that’s not terrible. Tread water enough and surge at other times and you’ve still got a winner. If the Mariners play .500 or better every 10 games they very likely will win this division. But it’s worth remembering, too, that it took some standout pitching by Felix Hernandez against the Rays to reach that .500 mark. Anything less and you’re looking at a losing record for those 10 games. Yes, these things sometimes even out, as with the M’s dropping that Chis Jakubauskas gem on Tuesday. But you can’t really look at things that way. Baseball doesn’t always even out. The fact is, there were some problems that caught up to the M’s during those 10 games that nearly made them a loasing squad. In fact, it easily could have.
For me, the biggest thing was the way the middle of the order stopped hitting altogether.
Russell Branyan was sidelined for five of those 10 games, Ken Griffey Jr. had just four singles and one run batted in while playing in eight of those 10 games. Adrian Beltre played all 10 games and had six hits, three of them doubles, with four RBI.
But you see the problem. Not one home runs from the Nos. 3-5 regulars in the order for the first six of those games, five of which saw Branyan shelved. It wasn’t until Branyan came back last weekend against the Angels that the Mariners finally started getting some extra-base pop from the middle of the order.
So, it’s no surprise to see that, in their five losses, the Mariners scored 0, 2, 3, 0 and one run. Heck they also scored one run in that win by Hernandez over Tampa. So, that’s four games where the M’s were held to a run or fewer. Five of the 10 games where they scored two or fewer. In other words, it’s amazing that the M’s went .500.
And they did it, because their defense remains solid and their pitching has been dependable, even when not at it’s best. You are rarely seeing any Mariners pitchers fail to go at least five innings, which is actually common in April as arms get warmed up. The starters, even with some cracks showing from Jarrod Washburn, Carlos Silva and Chris Jakubauskas against the Rays, have still held up and given their team a chance to win.
And that’s what you hope for. Washburn won’t look like Cy Young every time he’s out there. Neither will Erik Bedard, for that matter, as we saw yesterday. But they will at least be competitive with that defense behind them. Nobody is getting blown out like they were a year ago at this time.
The bullpen saw some pitchers start to separate from the pack. David Aardsma is gaining trust as a late-inning option behind Brandon Morrow, who seemed to have settled in to his role before that bout with shoulder stiffness in Anaheim. The middle relievers are a bit more muddled. Roy Corcoran had his struggles, as did Mark Lowe and Miguel Batista. Shawn Kelley impressed when given chances to work, though took a step back yesterday. Sean White also stepped into the picture as the long guy. Kelley is a guy I think the team trusts against left handers more than the other three. It remains to be seen who will stay with the team once lefties like Cesar Jimenez and Tyler Johnson are ready. I think White will go once Ryan Rowland-Smith is healthy and the team figures out whether he or Jakubauskas will stay in the rotation.
But once the more situational lefties are ready and one of the middle relieving righties has to leave, I’m not prepared to say Kelley will be the one. Not based on what I saw in those second 10 games. It’s not going to happen right away, because the lefties aren’t ready, but I can’t say Kelley is behind Corcoran, or even Lowe and Batista right now. Batista, you have limited options with. But those other two have to step their games up if they don’t want a nasty surprise greeting them come May.
And it’s those times, when the pitchers are less than perfect, but still good enough to have a shot at winning — as Bedard and the bullpen were yesterday — that the offense needs to come through.
The offense had been doing a ton of little things right early on. It has gotten away from that approach at times. I didn’t see the runners getting moved ahead every night the way I did early in the season. Didn’t see the timely small ball. The productive outs. We saw that trend carry into yesterday’s game, where the M’s did plenty of hitting — racking up a dozen hits — but couldn’t do the little things to push more than three runs across.
And that’s what has them treading water right now.
But it also has me optimistic, because I believe the pitching we’ve seen so far, great, good, sometimes bad, and ugly once in a blue moon, is pretty much what this team will get all year. And I know that defense is streak-proof. If your team has good fielders, they won’t become bad fielders all of a sudden for 10-game spurts. Maybe for a night or two, but it’s not like hitting.
Hitting is prone to streaks. And so far, the M’s have pretty much caught the bad end of the spectrum. And I am truly confident that they are due to improve once the middle of the order performs more consistently. We’ve seen what Branyan has done for the power since his return. We see Beltre slowly heating up as he does every year at some point. And Griffey looked good with those doubles in consecutive games. The team needs more of that on a consisitent basis. And it needs to remember to focus on each at-bat, and start being a little more selective.
Yuniesky Betancourt doesn’t have a walk yet. Neither does Ichiro, other than that intentional one handed him yesterday. Franklin Gutierrez has swung at some bad pitches. Mike Sweeney hasn’t drawn a walk either, for that matter. Griffey and Endy Chavez are about the only ones doing it. The entire team needs to be a little more conscious of pitch selection and plate patience and make sure that if they do swing, it produces something constructive — even when it’s an out.
It won’t happen any time, but do it consistently, to go with increased production from the middle of the order, and this team is bound to start winning more than it loses. But for now, given how bad the offense looked at times the past 10, or dozen games or so since the Tigers came to Safeco Field, I’d say a .500 result is the very best the M’s deserved. And to think, it could have easily been more.
Take care of business now and some better results should follow,