MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

Happ, rotation keep Mariners hopeful

Happ, rotation keep Mariners hopeful

SEATTLE -- OK, so the Mariners had their struggles in the opening month of the season. So they are three games below .500. So what.

Seattle was the pick to click in the American League West coming into the season. Don't doubt the Mariners now.

The Mariners aren't going to win every game they play, but with their rotation, they take the field every game knowing they have an opportunity for a victory. It's not about needing to have things break right. The key for Seattle is having its starting pitchers pitch up to their ability.

"No question," manager Lloyd McClendon said when asked if he felt the rotation is what sets the Mariners apart from the rest of the West. "I like our rotation, one through five. It gives us a good chance in every game. For a manager's standpoint, that's a good feeling.

From Felix Hernandez, the unchallenged ace of the rotation, to Roenis Elias, the recent callup to fill the void for the injured Hisashi Iwakuma, Seattle's starters are living up to expectations.

No one underscores what sets the Mariners apart from the rest of the West more than left-hander J.A. Happ.

A .500 pitcher in the six previous seasons he spent with the Phillies, Astros and Blue Jays, Happ added another seven strong innings to his ledger Friday night, giving Seattle the opportunity it needed to pull out a 2-1 victory over Boston thanks to Nelson Cruz's two-out, run-scoring single in the bottom of the ninth.

McClendon on 2-1 win

That's six quality starts in seven starts this season for Happ, and in his one exception, he allowed just one run in five innings of a 7-2 victory against Oakland last Saturday.

Surprised? Don't be. It's the Mariners way. They are only 16-19 this season, leaving them 6 1/2 games back of the AL West-leading Astros and two games behind the Angels, but they are tied with the Tigers for the AL lead in quality starts with 20, and they have had eight in their past 10 games.

"Our talent level is very high, but we still have to go out and win the games on the field," said pitching coach Rick Waits.

Hernandez leads the team with six wins and can take the Major League lead if he adds another in his start against the Red Sox on Saturday night. Elias has put together quality efforts in three of the four starts since he took over for Iwakuma. James Paxton and Taijuan Walker have both shown signs of meeting their expectations of domination in recent starts.

And then there is Happ, the 32-year-old left-hander with a 41-49 record the past six years. He's not only 3-1 with the Mariners, but Seattle has won five of his seven starts, and he has allowed more than two runs just once.

Acquired to add depth, Happhas done that, and then some. He has pitched at least six innings in six of his seven starts and has pitched into the seventh inning in five of them. Happ has only walked nine batters in 45 1/3 innings, and he has a 2.97 ERA -- 2.05 at Safeco Field.

"It's the first time in his career he has pitched in a ballpark that suits him a little," said McClendon. "He's pitching in small ballparks. For a fly-ball pitcher, that's tough. [Safeco Field] fits him. And he's rediscovered his change. It has been his equalizer."

The confidence was underscored early on Friday. Happ got hurt with a changeup that Boston shortstop Xander Bogaerts drove into left-center field for a run-scoring triple.

Bogaerts' RBI triple

Happ, however, didn't shy away from the changeup after that, like he had in the past. He kept throwing it and it got better as the game went along. Only one other Red Sox player got as far as second base in the seven innings Happ worked.

"He has his confidence back in that pitch," said Waits. "It wasn't working early in the game, but he got it going. He understands he has to have that fourth pitch in his arsenal, and he has enough confidence in it that he kept throwing it."

Now, it's a matter of getting Paxton and Walker pitching up to their abilities, and the recent indications have been positive.

Walker was as dominating as any pitcher in Arizona during Spring Training, but he struggled initially once the season began. He is 1-4 with an unsightly 7.22 ERA in seven starts, but he has allowed three or fewer runs in four of his last five starts, including three in which he has given up two or fewer.

Paxton, meanwhile, is only 1-2 with a 4.31 ERA, but he has put together three consecutive quality starts in which he has allowed only four runs in 20 innings.

"I've been very encouraged over our starting pitchers the last 10 games," said McClendon. "The starters have picked us up. They are starting to feed off each other."

And it's that rotation which is whetting the appetites of a success-hungry Mariners fan base, still looking for that first World Series appearance in the history of a franchise born out of expansion 38 years ago.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.