SEATTLE -- Two months into the season, the Mariners have emerged as one of baseball's biggest surprises. At 28-18, they sit atop the American League West and own the second-best record in the league, a half-game behind the Red Sox.
With a roster that new general manager Jerry Dipoto retrofitted with a flurry of offseason deals and led by a manager in Scott Servais who never filled that position at any level prior to this spring, the Mariners are proving to be a legitimate force.
Following Wednesday's 13-3 win over the A's, the Mariners have the lowest ERA in the AL at 3.20 and -- more surprisingly -- they have recovered from a slow start with the bats to where they're now second to the Red Sox in runs per game. That's a healthy combination, which is why Seattle has gone 10-1-1 over its last 12 series and has the best record in baseball at 26-12 since April 13.
So how have the Mariners pulled off this hot start? Here are five keys to their surprising start:
1. An MVP-type leader Robinson Cano started hot and hasn't let up. The six-time All-Star enters is tied with Todd Frazier of the White Sox for most home runs in the AL with 14 and is second in RBIs behind David Ortiz of the Red Sox.
Those are monster numbers for a second baseman, putting him on pace for 49 homers and 151 RBIs. While it's doubtful he can maintain that level in the power department, the encouraging thing for the Mariners is that Cano really isn't hitting over his head in anything but the long-ball department. His .295 batting average and .345 on-base percentage are both lower than his career averages of .307 and .356 coming into this year.
So while his slugging percentage of .584 is way above his career .497 mark, it's certainly conceivable that Cano could sustain or even improve on his other numbers. Remember, even last year when he needed double-hernia surgery after the season, Cano hit .330 with 17 homers and a .919 OPS over the final 82 games. This guy has been on a roll for quite some time.
2. Ducks on the pond
Cano's RBI numbers are a direct result of the runners on ahead of him. Dipoto stressed improving the team's on-base percentage this year, and the results are paying off. Seattle is second in the AL in OBP at .327, even without much help in that area from Norichika Aoki and Adam Lind, whose career averages would suggest there's more to come from them.
The Mariners were 11th in the league with a .311 OBP last season, which is a big reason why they finished 13th in scoring with a team that was fifth in home runs. This year, they're tied for second in homers and second in runs.
3. The King needed a full court
For far too long, the Mariners haven't had a complete team surrounding Felix Hernandez. This year's group appears much deeper -- and not just on the offensive side.
It's interesting to note that Seattle's top two pitchers -- Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma -- were a combined 27-12 last year with the team going 30-21 in their starts, but just 46-65 with anybody else on the mound.
This year, Hernandez and Iwakuma have combined for a 7-7 record and the team is 10-9 in their starts. But the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 starters -- Wade Miley, Taijuan Walker and Nathan Karns -- have posted an 11-7 mark and the team is 18-9 in their starts.
4. Bullish in the 'pen
The biggest question mark on the club going into the season has turned into a definite strength despite some injury issues. The Mariners' bullpen is fourth in the AL in ERA in a tightly bunched group at 2.62 and first in WHIP (1.04), opponents' batting average (.194), on-base percentage (.270) and OPS (.596).
That's a pretty huge turnaround for a bullpen that was 12th in the AL last year in ERA (4.15), 13th in WHIP (1.38), opponents' average (.258) and OPS (.747) and 14th in OBP (.337).
Lefties Mike Montgomery and Vidal Nuno have been outstanding, combining for a 1.54 ERA with 38 strikeouts and eight walks in 41 innings while holding opponents to a .190 average and more than making up for the absence of injured southpaw standout Charlie Furbush. This group doesn't have any big names, but it's been a big part of the team's early success.
5. It takes a village
Sometimes you run across teams that just seem to have something special going, and this year's Mariners have fit that bill. They've won nine of their last 10 one-run games, are 5-1 in extra-inning affairs and are third in the Majors with 12 comeback victories.
And while the offensive core of Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager have been swinging big bats, other players keep stepping up in key situations as well, with Dae-Ho Lee, Chris Iannetta and Leonys Martin supplying walk-off homers, young shortstop Ketel Marte injecting electric energy prior to his left thumb injury and Lind joining the party with a two-homer, six-RBI game in Wednesday's victory over the A's.
It's all added up to a winning combination so far and set the stage for what could be a very interesting summer in Seattle for a franchise that hasn't reached the playoffs since 2001, the longest dry spell in MLB.
Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.