July 13, 2009 in Sports

Blanchette: Whatever M’s are doing, it’s working

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Associated Press photo

Mariners starter Erik Bedard has been healthy and stingy recently.
(Full-size photo)

SEATTLE – OK, spend. Buy. Do it now.

Go get some right-handed power or a No. 4 starter. Mortgage the farm system. Rent a veteran free-agent-to-be. Grab a fistful of Mr. Nintendo’s money and make it rain.

Or better yet, find some more discards. Bring up an unknown from Triple-A. Monitor the waiver wire 24/7. Write another .150 hitter’s name on the lineup card every day. Hand the ball to another reclamation project.

The buyers-or-sellers argument? Never mind.

Just let the Seattle Mariners continue to scrounge. Let them, as the man said, keep singing lead soprano in the junkman’s choir.

The M’s wrapped up the accepted, though not mathematical, first half of the baseball season Sunday with a 5-3 victory over their recent nemeses, the Texas Rangers. It was pretty much standard fare. Dink singles by pinch-hitter Chris Shelton and light-hitting catcher Rob Johnson drove in the deciding runs. Miguel Batista managed to give up the tying homer with his first pitch and still collected the win. The new third baseman just acquired for his defense made two errors. Ken Griffey Jr. kick-started the winning rally by beating out a two-out infield “hit,” and tectonic plates shivered.

Nonetheless, the Mariners remained four games behind the Los Angeles Angels in the American League West and pulled within a game and a half of the Rangers.

But they’re runaway leaders in the Abracadabra Division.

“We’re really close to doing what Tampa Bay was doing last year,” said M’s closer David Aardsma, who collected his 20th save – or 20 more than he had in four previous major league seasons.

Easy, big fella. That’s third place you’re sitting in.

Still, there is no plausible reference for this. Reviewing 2008 or really any of the previous five seasons is about as appealing as shopping for a dress for your ex-husband’s wedding, but at this juncture a year ago the Mariners were 19 games under .500 and 20 games out of first – or, as Ichiro Suzuki put it Sunday, “already in the casket.”

But these M’s head into the All-Star break having won 16 of their past 25 games, going from three games under .500 to four over. This in the context of losing both their left fielder and third baseman to injuries, giving up on their incumbent shortstop and, in the case of Brandon Morrow, authoring the textbook in how not to handle a first-round draft pick.

How the Mariners have done what they’ve done is almost indefinable, though it is mostly pitching-and-defense driven as these sorts of little-engine-that-might baseball stories usually are. Seattle has the A.L.’s best earned-run average – by a lot, a full run lower than a year ago. Felix Hernandez took a verbal poke from manager Don Wakamatsu and made himself into the ace the M’s needed him to be. Jarrod Washburn not only found his sinker again, he found a better one. Erik Bedard is barely more loveable and still too much of a five-inning pitcher, but is healthier and stingier. And the back-end starters and relievers have been more than anyone could have imagined.

And they’ve allowed the Mariners to live with some shortcomings elsewhere, if only in the name of clubhouse feng shui. Griffey may not be hitting his weight, but he’s worth it in sheer vibe. Johnson struggles to stay over .200, but when he catches the M’s are 25-15 – a happy statistic made ominous by the fact that Hernandez, Washburn and Bedard insist on throwing to him and not Kenji Johjima.

In the wake of jettisoning shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and shipping Morrow to Triple-A for more work under the hood, this will be the next challenge to the clubhouse kumbaya and Wakamatsu’s exemplary leadership. That is far more critical than it sounds, for to a man the M’s insist their regard for each other is what’s making possible the recent wonderment – the 5-4 road trip against the Dodgers, Red Sox and Yankees, and the virtual silencing of Texas’ terrifying bats.

“We need every single guy in the clubhouse,” Aardsma said, “whether it’s their first day in the big leagues or they’ve got 20-plus (years). We welcome everybody the second they get here because we’re going to need them.”

For the pennant race, he means.

“The correct thing to say is not ‘Can we win?’ ” Ichiro said, “but that we have to win.”

Maybe it’s unrealistic to think in those terms. But if the M’s have won anything in the first half of the season, it’s the right to dream.

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