June 24, 2014 in Sports

Blanchette: This year’s Mariners a difficult team to decipher

By The Spokesman-Review
 

SEATTLE – The latest 18-year-old millionaire hit town Monday. No, he isn’t another apps prodigy, though you might not have been able to tell from the way he was – or wasn’t – getting around on batting practice fastballs.

Alex Jackson, Seattle’s No. 1 pick in this month’s amateur draft, put his name to a $4 million deal, pulled on a No. 10 jersey, hopped in the cage and proceeded to Willie Mays Hayes about a dozen baseballs into the netting above his head. Then he grabbed a seat in the stands, zitzing any notion that his signing was green-lighted as another desperate stab at getting Felix Hernandez an actual run.

Today he’s on a plane to Arizona and rookie league anonymity. Who needs desperate measures?

The Mariners are rolling again, not to be confused with the swirl imitative of the common bathroom fixture. Even here in this season of the Precarious Renaissance, the M’s have struggled with losing streaks of eight and five games. But they’ve also strung together bursts of wins – 7 in 8, 8 of 9 and now 7 of 9, despite the community bat rack being ravaged by ash borer.

This is baseball’s lovely uncertainty.

“I used to ask Tony La Russa all the time, ‘How you doing, Skip?’ ” recalled M’s manager Lloyd McClendon, “and he said, ‘I’ll tell you about 10:30 tonight. Now I understand what he’s talking about. Talk to me at 10:30 and I’ll let you know how the day’s going.”

As of 10:30 Monday night, all was well.

The Mariners had trumped an old foil, Boston Red Sox pitcher John Lackey, for their fourth straight victory. Actually, not just trumped, but thumped. Homers, triples and doubles jumped off the Seattle bats in a 12-3 victory, allowing Hernandez a level of ease he enjoyed briefly last month and too rarely in other junctures of his fabulous career.

Hernandez has allowed just two runs in his last 22 innings and been rewarded with a loss and two no-decisions. A wonderful nugget unearthed by the Mariners staff noted that he is the latest of eight pitchers – since 1900 – to go seven innings in three straight starts, surrender no more than an earned run in any of them and come away with no victories.

Oh, and the most recent before him? Doug Fister, when he was a Mariner.

You just can’t beat tradition.

And yet, 12-3.

“All we need is to score three and we haven’t been able to do that,” said first baseman Logan Morrison. “If we could spread these out for his starts, it would probably be a little better for our win-loss record.”

Sillier still, batting in the first three spots in the order for the M’s Triple-A rehab clinic in Tacoma on Monday were Michael Saunders, Corey Hart and Justin Smoak – all regulars with the big club before their injuries. And they had seven hits among them.

It’s this sort of turn of events that can almost make general manager Jack Zduriencik believable when he imagines big things “if we can just get this whole group healthy.”

Well, OK. Except there is this little business of the Mariners being 14th in the American League in batting average, 12th in runs and last in on-base percentage – from a statistical base firmly established before anyone had sprained a big toe. That only underscores how special Seattle’s pitching – especially out-of-nowhere types like Roenis Elias and Chris Young, and the bullpen – have been.

Nonetheless, the Mariners are 41-36, a sample size big enough to suggest they’re as real as the Royals or the Orioles or any of the five teams currently within a couple victories of one another for the two available wild-card spots in the postseason.

Yeah. The P word.

Of course, it is only baseball’s insistence on watering down the playoffs that lend any legitimacy to such wide-eyed fancy.

Zduriencik also offered that, “We haven’t had a big offensive hot streak yet. We’ve had certain players who’ve been hot, but as a group we haven’t.”

The question is, are they capable of one?

Maybe – if Morrison swings like the guy who had two jacks in a 4-for-4 night and not the one with the .164 average. Or if more Mariners can put together at-bats like the one Dustin Ackley managed to break Lackey – his alphabet soup mate – in the fourth inning, a 13-pitch standoff that produced an RBI and kept alive a six-run rally.

“His at-bat was the ballgame,” McClendon agreed.

And yet a few breaths later, the manager acknowledged again that his club is “challenged offensively a little bit.” Which is another way of saying every 13-pitch war-of-wills counts.

Unless there’s a couple million-dollar prodigies who actually are ready for prime time.


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