MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Mariners making strides in right direction

Castrovince: Mariners making strides in right direction

Mariners making strides in right direction
If your world somehow seemed a little more stable, a little more sensible over the weekend, perhaps it's because the Seattle Mariners were getting swept in Chicago.

Because, before those three losses, the Mariners -- yes, the Mariners -- were the hottest team in baseball.

They had won eight straight. They had won 25 of 38 in the second half, compiling the American League's highest winning percentage in that span. They were starting to find themselves on the fringe -- the very, very outer fringe, mind you, but the fringe all the same -- of the Wild Card hunt.

A trio of one-run losses to the AL Central-leading White Sox, including a rain-shortened Sunday finale, seemed to interject a dose of reality into the picture. Because the truth of the matter is that more than half the victories in Seattle's sudden second-half surge came at home against clubs with sub-.500 records. The Mariners were also 1-0 on days in which Felix Hernandez threw a perfect game.

But the M's overall strides of the second half merit monitoring. For what we've learned over the last month and a half is that if this team gets just a little extra offensive push, it has the pitching and defense to be taken seriously.

And this, simply put, is a major step forward for a club that lost 196 games between 2010 and '11.

"I think everybody has a little hop in their step, a little fire underneath them, and the big thing everybody is saying right now is "Why not us?'" said starter Blake Beavan. "You just keep pushing, going up that mountain."

The Mariners remain basically at the bottom of the mountain, for they remain in last place in the AL West. But they are a mere five games behind the seemingly stacked (not to mention well-compensated) Angels, and this tells us a little bit about both clubs.

By now, we're all pretty well acquainted with the notion of the Mariners struggling to score runs. They are trending toward their third consecutive season finishing last in the AL in runs per game and their third straight season with a sub-.300 team on-base percentage.

Really, there ought to be some sort of federal relief fund for teams that struggle at the plate the way the Mariners have struggled the last few years.

But the Safeco Field effects, obvious as they are, can't be underestimated. You might not even realize that, among AL teams, the Mariners trail only the Angels and the Yankees in runs per game on the road this season, and their team OPS on the road is a respectable .710.

At home? Why, they're dead last in both the runs (3.19) and OPS categories (.605), naturally.

The second half has not seen a dramatic rise in those tallies. While it would be chicken soup for the Mariners fan's soul to say Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero and Justin Smoak have all made major offensive strides in recent weeks, that wouldn't be entirely true. All three are still a long way from where the M's envision them to be, production-wise.

On the bright side, John Jaso, Michael Saunders and Kyle Seager have been pleasant offensive surprises, and right fielder Eric Thames, who arrived in a trade with Toronto, has provided some pop that a certain Japanese superstar who formerly manned that position did not have.

Speaking of Ichiro Suzuki, could the departure of the fading icon, who was always known to follow his own program, be a subplot to the recent success? Could be. But his departure seems more symbolic, in the sense of this club attempting to build a new identity.

Better, more opportunistic at-bats in key situations are the more likely explanation for the rise in the win column. The Mariners had a .241/.318/.373 slash line with runners in scoring position in the first half. Those numbers have improved to .262/.367/.444 in the second.

"We've gotten over some big hurdles at home and I think we'll continue to be a better team and better hitting team at home," manager Eric Wedge said. "I think when all the dust settles and we get deeper into this next year and the year after and these guys keep developing into second- and third-year players, I think we'll be very well balanced in that regard."

In the meantime, pitching is what tips the scales for these Mariners. And the staff runs deeper than Hernandez, a strong candidate for his second Cy Young Award.

Seattle opted to hold on not only to King Felix but also to Jason Vargas at the Trade Deadline, and he's been solid in the second half, going 5-0 with a 3.00 ERA in eight starts. Hisashi Iwakuma, signed as a free agent out of Japan and initially cast in a relief role, joined the rotation midseason and has gone 3-2 with a 3.02 ERA in nine starts. Beavan and veteran Kevin Millwood have been serviceable in the back end, and the bullpen has been bolstered by hard-throwing rookies Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps, with Tom Wilhelmsen doing a terrific job of replacing Brandon League in the closer's role.

The Mariners' ultimate potential rests in Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, their trio of highly regarded pitching prospects. Because the M's seemingly have no desire to move Hernandez, who is free-agent eligible after 2014, for offensive pieces, they could build one of the more robust rotations in the game, especially in the pitcher's safety net that is Safeco.

For now, Safeco only serves to exacerbate the offensive issues, and the weekend sweep serves to quell what had been a startling stretch of positive play from a last-place Seattle team.

Perhaps, though, the Mariners just gave us a peek into their future -- timely hitting backing a potent pitching staff. That's just sensible enough to work.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. MLB.com reporter Greg Johns contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.