Contrary to popular belief, the sky is not falling on the Mariners’ season. Lloyd McClendon, like many Mariners managers before him, is urging patience and perspective.
The message emanating from Safeco Field before Tuesday’s game was a unified one: Contrary to popular belief and visual confirmation, the sky is not falling on the Mariners’ season.
Lloyd McClendon was spinning that point of view hard, urging fans (as many Mariners managers before him have done at similarly dire junctions) for patience and perspective.
The former is hard to muster, however, when the latter is imbued with 14 years and counting of ever-growing frustration. Intellectually, everyone knows there’s plenty of time for a rebound. But emotionally, it’s hard to put much faith in that outcome.
I caught up with Edgar Martinez on Tuesday for the first time since he exchanged his civvies to re-don one of the most iconic uniforms in Seattle sports history. Not surprisingly, Edgar issued a message of quiet confidence that echoed McClendon’s. He rebuffed the notion that his challenge as the new hitting coach will be more daunting than he might have realized.
“I don’t see it as a challenge.,’’ he said. “We have good talent, and I think it’s a matter of time. And we have a lot of time left. In ’95, we were out 13 games in September (actually August). We have the players to get this going.”
I resisted the urge to remind Martinez that the ’95 Mariners also had Ken Griffey Jr. (for the stretch drive, at least), Jay Buhner and, well, Edgar Martinez. Using ’95 as the touchstone for all moribund Mariners teams is also getting increasingly tiresome to many fans, though the guy who hit the Double Heard ‘Round The Sound gets cut some slack.
Martinez is beloved, and a hitting savant who may be able to get through to a few of the Mariners’ struggling hitters. But he’s not a miracle worker. The Mariners, as they consistently have been in the Jack Zduriencik era, are in offensive disarray — Tuesday’s outpouring of runs not withstanding.
They don’t get on base enough, don’t slug nearly enough to compensate for it, and have so many gaping holes that it buries the contributions of those who happen to be producing at any given moment.
Many have posited that Martinez’s pet project will be Robinson Cano, the underachieving second baseman. But Cano has a career track record that suggest he’ll eventually figure things out.
A far more pressing project for Martinez is Mike Zunino, the flailing catcher who is striking out at an astonishing rate — 11 times in his last 13 at-bats, after whiffing in the second. Zunino entered the game with a .155 average and a 42 percent strikeout rate.
We have good talent, and I think it’s a matter of time. And we have a lot of time left. In ’95, we were out 13 games in September (actually August). We have the players to get this going.” - Edgar Martinez
McClendon acknowledged that the encouraging signs from spring training, when Zunino made consistent contact to all fields, have steadily dissipated. He went into a long, technical explanation of what Zunino was doing wrong.
“Right now, he’s a mess, and we have to get him straightened out,’’ he said.
The Mariners are essentially a National League team playing in the American League. Their catchers were hitting a combined .143, just 15 points higher than the average for National League pitchers. Heck, the Reds’ pitchers are hitting .181.
Yet with Welington Castillo gone to Arizona in the Mark Trumbo deal, and Tacoma bereft of major-league-ready catchers, McClendon has little choice but to keep penciling in Zunino.
And to hope that Martinez can break through before Zunino’s confidence is irrevocably shattered.
“In the end, my hope is that he does have a major influence on Zunino, and does make him a project or getting him back to being somewhat close to what he was last year,’’ McClendon said.
“I think it’s mental. I think it’s been mental for a while.”
Martinez was a master of the mental aspect of the game, using visualization as a key component of his preparation. He told me he will introduce those techniques as the season progresses.
“We have the talent and ability,’’ he said. “It’s having the confidence to use your ability. That’s a tool we’ll be able to use.”
His initial strategy with Zunino seems to be to act like he’s not in crisis mode. He believes that positive results — like his RBI, bases-loaded single in the fourth inning on Tuesday — can work psychological wonders.
“I’m not making a big deal out of it,’’ Martinez said. “I’ll work with his mechanics so he feels more comfortable at the plate. Sometimes, it takes one or two good at-bats, and things turn around pretty quickly.
“He has the talent, and he’s doing the work. You put those things together, talent and putting the work, and it should happen for him.”
McClendon was asked what other targets he had in mind for Martinez to work with.
“We have a lot of targets,’’ McClendon replied. “Where to you want to start? Listen, we haven’t hit the way we’re capable of hitting. We’ve shown spurts here and there. And when they do it, it shows you the promise of what we’re capable of doing.
“It’s perplexing, it’s frustrating. I find myself sitting in bed at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning trying to figure out what the hell is going on. At some point — and I’m not like the masses — but at some point we’ve got to get it going. You have to start showing signs of coming out of this — (or) do something drastic if we don’t.”
Hiring a new hitting coach, even one as revered as Martinez, doesn’t really qualify as drastic. After all, since Zduriencik took over as GM prior to the 2009 season, the Mariners have had six hitting coaches to go with three managers (plus interim Daren Brown).
McClendon has alluded to driving a garbage truck if his big hitters don’t hit. Zduriencik would no doubt join him in an occupation change if that’s the outcome.
The sky might not be falling, but the storm clouds are gathering.