The M’s won’t be back at Safeco Field until Sept. 1, and they’ll need to hold their pitching staff together to be in the playoff race when they return.

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The journey began on Wednesday evening as the Mariners boarded a plane and headed for Tampa with a 61-61 record and 1½ games back of the second American League wild-card spot.

The next time they play a game in Seattle will be on Sept. 1.

Until then, they will be on the road for 13 days, playing 12 games against four different teams, starting with a three-game set against the Rays.

A four-city road trip isn’t typical. But in past years, when they would play the National League East for interleague games, the Mariners requested a schedule that limited their cross-country trips by bunching up the series on the East Coast. But this trip probably wasn’t what they were looking for.

In 2010, the Mariners had a 12-game, four-city trek of Cleveland, Baltimore, New York and Boston. They went 6-6 over the 12 games.

Considering the teams they are playing on this trip, a 6-6 record would be acceptable, but a winning record would be useful in their push for the postseason. With three of the four teams they are playing also in the wild-card hunt, this could be a season-defining road trip for the Mariners.

Back in January, manager Scott Servais was asked about the month of August when his team would play just seven games at home.

“It’s not good,” he said. “It’s not good at all. We need to get off to a good start. It’s going to be challenging, there’s no doubt, and you look at what happened, how our season went last year. We really struggled at the end of August. It was a rough road trip for us. Our pitching was just worn down. They got depleted. I was going to the bullpen so early and we couldn’t wait to get to September first. Once we got to September first, we were able to bring in some reinforcements and really back off the load we were putting on our bullpen especially.”

Yeah, so that good start didn’t happen, and the pitching isn’t worn down it’s broken down. The bullpen workload is excessive and once again the Sept. 1 roster expansion can’t happen soon enough.

While the Mariners have a losing road record at 27-29, they have played better away from Safeco of late, posting a 13-5 record in their last 18 road games.

Can this trip that seemed so daunting back in January somehow be a positive going forward?

Here are three things to watch:

Returns from the rotation?

Even with an off day on Thursday, Servais said he didn’t plan to adjust the rotation or skip a starter, choosing to give the current members an extra day of rest. It’s not as if he has many options. With James Paxton still a few weeks away from returning and Felix Hernandez not expected back until after that, the internal options in the organization don’t represent significant upgrades.

General manager Jerry Dipoto said in his weekly radio show on ESPN 710 that the odds of trading for another starting pitcher were “remote.” So Servais will go forward with Erasmo Ramirez, Ariel Miranda, Yovani Gallardo, Andrew Albers and Marco Gonzales and hope for five innings of work without giving the game away.

Of that group, only Ramirez has pitched six innings in a recent outing. Miranda is giving up home runs at an alarming rate, while Gallardo is still the same pitcher that performed his way into a demotion earlier this season. All five of them struggle to get through a batting order three times.

If “it all starts with starting pitching” as Servais often likes to say, the Mariners must get improved outings in places that aren’t exactly pitcher friendly.

Will the “wolf pack” howl?

The current philosophy the Mariners are employing to weather their starting pitching limitations is to use their pack of relievers to nurse them through games after the fifth inning. It yielded uneven results on the previous homestand for various reasons, including overuse. The wolf pack lost some of its bite when Edwin Diaz, Tony Zych and Nick Vincent weren’t available in certain games while career starters such as Andrew Moore struggled in a relief role.

Even when rested, late innings won’t matter if the middle relief doesn’t work. Seattle is looking to a group of interchangeable pitchers on the roster or in Class AAA Tacoma to handle that middle relief work from the fifth to the seventh innings to bridge to the back of the bullpen in close games. Emilio Pagan has excelled in that multi-inning role in games with leads, but James Pazos has had some uneven outings of late.

Diaz’s command issues at the end of the Orioles game are definitely a concern. It was a complete mechanical breakdown. Servais also must monitor the usage of Vincent and Zych, who he wants to use often but can’t.

Got offense?

For all its talent, the Mariners’ offense has yet to find the run-scoring consistency that Servais would like in the second half. Seattle is averaging 4.4 runs per game since the All-Star break. But there have been extended stretches where the “Control the Zone” philosophy has vanished in a mass of strikeouts and soft contact. The baserunning, which might be the worst in baseball, also has hindered their production.

Given their starting-pitching issues, they need better-than-average run production on this trip. The Mariners are 5-42 in games where they score less than four runs and 55-19 when scoring four or more runs.

Ben Gamel is hitting just .118 with a .304 OPS over the last 14 games. Kyle Seager has missed the last two games with stomach issues and has lost 12 pounds in two days. After scuffling for a stretch, Robinson Cano is hitting. 314 with a .797 OPS and 10 RBI in his last 17 games. The three-hit day from recently acquired Yonder Alonso on Sunday offered a hint of how much he could help out Cano, Nelson Cruz and Seager.

Long time gone
The Mariners start a four-city
Team Dates
Tampa Bay Rays Aug. 18-20
Atlanta Braves Aug. 21-23
N.Y. Yankees Aug. 25-27
Baltimore Orioles Aug. 28-30