Seattle just finished its best month in quite some time, has a healthy lineup intact for the first time this season and is playing better than most projected. Still, there are five months to go and many obstacles to face.
It was Dee Gordon, of all people, who talked some sense into me. For a guy whose job is to get things started, Gordon gently shut me down before Tuesday’s game. Call it the night’s first pickoff attempt.
To his way of thinking, I was being a little too prematurely effusive in my questioning about the Mariners’ impressive start and their solid top-to-bottom lineup.
“We’ve still got a long way to go before we can be a pretty good lineup in this league,’’ he cautioned. “You can’t get too giddy. You’ve got to keep pushing every day, because every day is a different day.”
Duly noted. Surely, those who follow the Mariners know better than most every cautionary tale about reading too much into early success. Assume too much, and it just makes the impending heartache that much more acute. We’ve seen that play out too often for comfort.
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But with that proviso, and understanding that there are still 134 games remaining that will reveal multitudes about the true character of this Seattle team, I have come to a (perhaps dangerous) conclusion based on a one-month-plus one-day body of work.
I underestimated this Mariners team.
Certainly, there are evident flaws and potential trouble areas. The injury that landed Erasmo Ramirez on the disabled list Tuesday highlighted the most potentially crippling: a thin starting rotation that has had issues getting beyond the fifth inning this season.
But as the American League settles into a stark dichotomy of haves and have-nots, the Mariners are falling squarely in the former category. That’s not to say they are up there with the three elite teams, the Yankees, Red Sox and Astros. I’m not THAT giddy. But they certainly seem poised for a legitimate run at the second wild card, and I wouldn’t have made that statement on opening day. Not without even more qualifiers, at least.
What’s changed, for starters, is a fuller appreciation for this Mariner lineup in action than there was as names on a prospective lineup sheet. And considering that it didn’t truly reach full strength until Tuesday with the recall of Guillermo Heredia from Tacoma, and the time missed by Ryon Healy, Mike Zunino, Nelson Cruz and Ben Gamel, we are only starting to get a handle on the potential havoc it can wreak.
Yeah, I’m getting carried away again, but I’ll turn it over to someone who has the credentials and credibility to gush.
“I’m excited about the lineup,’’ said hitting coach Edgar Martinez. “Each of the hitters in the lineup, they’re pretty good hitters, and through the lineup we have power. Most of those guys can hit a home run at any time. That puts a lot of stress on a pitcher. When a pitcher has to go three times through that lineup, it can be tough. I think we saw it in Cleveland. It was a great series, and the offense was pretty tough on their pitching.”
Mitch Haniger, of course, is emerging as a star before our very eyes, but to my eyes Gordon has been the revelation. He is the X factor as the instigator from the leadoff spot, epitomized by his current three-game stretch in which he has banged out 11 hits – five of them on Tuesday in Seattle’s 6-3 win over Oakland at Safeco Field.
“He makes a lot of things happen at the top of the lineup,’’ Martinez said. “He gets on base, and it’s a distraction for the pitcher. Pitchers know they have to throw strikes and they tend to make more mistakes.”
When manager Scott Servais sizes up the first month of the season, which saw the Mariners put up a 16-11 record, he revels not in the production of the lineup, nor the brilliance of closer Edwin Diaz, nor the encouraging renewal of Felix Hernandez, who worked six strong innings on Tuesday. Rather, he sees a resiliency that he believes will be far more important over the grueling marathon of a baseball season.
“We faced a little adversity, which is a good thing,’’ he said. “And we were able to overcome that. And we will face more adversity throughout the year. I think it says a lot about our team, the makeup of our team. That’s probably what excites me as much as anything.
“I think we had stretches where we swung the bat very well. But it was pretty evident when we got our entire team together here right at the end of the month, it was pretty neat to watch it all come together and how quickly we can score runs. Extra-base hits, knocking it out of the park, putting pressure on the other defenses. I think we’re starting to create an identity on how we play and how we’re going to play throughout the remainder of the season.’’
To Gordon, the identity is a relentlessness that, similar to Servais’ thought process, impresses him at this point more than any statistic.
“We don’t quit,” he said, and repeated the phrase for emphasis. “That’s awesome. We’ve got veteran guys who can just take it home after they get two hits, but no one takes it home. Guys are putting their all into every at-bat. That’s all you can ask for.”
For a Mariners team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2001, of course, it’s fair to ask for a little more: a route that takes them beyond relentless effort and into postseason baseball. Anything short of that will seem empty, fair or not.
No promises here, but I don’t feel I’m being inappropriately giddy when I say, it looks much more attainable today than it did on opening day.