MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Cohesive, loose Mariners off to fast start

Cohesive, loose Mariners off to fast start

HOUSTON -- Take a good long look at these Seattle Mariners. They're loose. They're laughing. This is what winning looks like.

"Everything is falling into place," second baseman Robinson Cano said.

This is exactly the start the Mariners needed after an offseason in which they were remade inside and out. Good starts are important to clubs with so many new faces, with obvious questions about how the pieces will fit.

Here's the answer, or at least a slice of the answer. Since a 2-6 start, the Mariners have won 15 of 20 game and six straight series. No team in baseball has won more games in this stretch. In that time, Seattle's rotation has a 2.98 ERA, best in the American League. The Mariners' bullpen has been even better, running up a 1.61 ERA, best in the Majors.

Cishek locks down save

Confidence grows an inch at a time. When they trailed by four runs Wednesday in Oakland, outfielder Nelson Cruz announced loudly, "We're going to win this."

That they did, rallying from 8-4 to win 9-8. And they had some of that same magic on Thursday night at Minute Maid Park in twice rallying from deficits to beat the Astros, 6-3.

This was the first of a four-game series that could help redefine the AL West race, or at least a slice of it. The Mariners (17-11) -- who have scored 54 two-out runs, tops in the AL -- are alone atop the division, 2 1/2 games in front of the second-place Texas Rangers.

More interesting is that the Astros, the team widely picked to win the division, are now 7 1/2 games out. With three more games in this series, Houston needs a victory or two to avoid giving themselves a formidable mountain to climb.

"We have a lot of talent on this team," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "We don't like how we've started, but this is too good a team to stay at this level."

When Luhnow looked across the diamond on Thursday night, he saw a team in the visiting dugout that had some of the same resilience Houston had in 2015, when the club made its first postseason appearance in 10 years.

Smith's two-run single

On Thursday, Seattle's top two hitters, Norichika Aoki and Seth Smith, got on base seven times. And the guy right behind them, Cano, drove in four runs to increase his Major League-leading RBI total to 30.

Mariners starter Wade Miley allowed two earned runs in six innings, and then the bullpen gave up one run in the final three to close it out. When it was tied in the top of the ninth inning, it was Cano smoking a bases-loaded three-run double to center field to break it open.

There was even a great defensive play with shortstop Ketel Marte taking a perfect relay throw from center fielder Leonys Martin and throwing out Astros catcher Jason Castro at the plate in the bottom of the seventh to keep the game tied.

Of the 13 players Seattle manager Scott Servais used on Thursday, eight of them weren't even in the organization at the end of last season. These early victories are especially important to bring cohesion to a clubhouse with so many new faces.

Cano and right-hander Felix Hernandez remain the heart and soul of the franchise, but there were so many other changes that Servais and his coaches embarked on a series of team-building exercises in Spring Training.

For one thing, Servais had players stand up in team meetings and tell the group something about their lives. If that sounds like a small thing, it's not.

Servais knew that ultimately teams are built by going through the ups and downs of a long season. But Cano said some closeness was built quickly.

"It has been great," Cano said, "and it starts with the manager. He did such a great job in Spring Training doing things to get us to know one another. I had no idea what some of these guys had gone through.

"You hear their story of how they got to this point, and it's amazing. It's good to get to know your teammates, because we spend more time with them than our families for a lot of the season."

One 15-5 run does not make a season. Likewise, the Astros' 10-19 start does not bury them. But momentum matters, especially for the Mariners, who were a disappointing 76-86 last season.

"It's a very loose group," Servais said. "It's a veteran group that just wants to have a good time. Why not? They're doing what they love. I think the guys enjoy each other, and I know they're having fun. It's not just because we're winning. That certainly helps. It's really been that way all spring, all through April."

The Mariners understand that this is one of those times when a baseball team is riding a wave of momentum and confidence, and that the key is to keep it going as long as possible and build up a cushion.

Also, with every comeback victory, there's a growing sense that they're never out of a game and that there's no better team in the division.

"It's a long season," catcher Chris Iannetta cautioned. "You're going to have a natural ebb and flow. Right now, we're just matching it up. You try and collect as many wins as you can.

"Anytime you can do this, it's always a team and chemistry builder. It's good to do it early in the year, because you can build on it throughout the course of the season. It gives you confidence going forward."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.