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Out of right field: Mariners giving fans hope, but is there a letdown on the horizon?

UPDATED: Sat., June 9, 2018, 8:02 p.m.

Seattle Mariners starting pitcher James Paxton throws to a Detroit Tigers batter during the first inning of a baseball game, Saturday, May 19, 2018, in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
Seattle Mariners starting pitcher James Paxton throws to a Detroit Tigers batter during the first inning of a baseball game, Saturday, May 19, 2018, in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

What’s so special about today? Well, we’re a third of the way through the month of June, which usually means the Mariners are immaterial to any discussion about postseason baseball.

In the past 10 seasons, including this one, the M’s have been better than .500 four times. And they’ve come close to making the playoffs – something they haven’t done since 2001 – just once, in 2014 when they finished a game out of the wild-card spot.

(If you want, you can include 2016, when their 86-76 record put them within hailing distance of the postseason, though finishing behind two other teams and three games out of the second wild card doesn’t seem to merit such consideration.)

But this June 10, it all seems different. The Mariners are in the playoff hunt. Heck, they’re in the American League West title race. In fact, despite Saturday’s 7-3 loss at Tampa Bay, they still lead the division with a 40-24 record.

So we have a few questions for you. Are you all in? Are you sure this is the season they break the longest playoff drought in baseball and play a game in October with bunting hanging everywhere? Or are you still one of the naysayers who expect the Mariners to fade as the weather warms, like they’ve done so many times in the past?

I really want to know. So either way, chime in. Email me at vincegrippi55@yahoo.com, send me your thoughts and later this week we’ll put together a Grip on Sports column that includes your opinion. It will appear online.

To help you arrive at the correct response, we have a few positives and negatives to share. There are more of both, but we’ll leave them to you to mention.

Why the Mariners are going to be playing in the postseason …

The starting pitching: If this area was listed at all before the season, it was given as a reason why Seattle was going to struggle.

But the M’s four-man rotation of James Paxton, Mike Leake, Marco Gonzales and Wade LeBlanc has been solid. Heck, they’ve ranged from spectacular – Paxton’s no-hitter or his 16 strikeout game – to really good, especially over the past month or so.

Either Gonzales, the Gonzaga grad who has been dominant in his last five starts (four wins, three earned runs in 33 1/3 innings, 21 strikeouts and a WHIP of less than one), or LeBlanc, the lefty acquired just before the season, wear the mantle of the season’s most pleasant surprise.

Paxton has become the ace everyone thought he could be and Leake hasn’t lost in weeks. It’s one of the American League’s best four-man rotations.

The bridge guy and the closer: General manager Jerry Dipoto knew the M’s had to get better in the eighth inning. So he called Tampa Bay general manager Erik Neander (he must be one of the favorites on Dipoto’s iPhone, they’ve traded so often) and worked out a deal for Rays closer Alex Colome. All of a sudden, with Edwin Diaz closing games as well as anyone in baseball (an MLB-leading 22 saves), the M’s should have the best eighth-ninth combo in the league.

Role guys playing like stars: Ben Gamel is proving last year, when he hit .275, isn’t a fluke. He’s driving the ball to all fields, has improved his average and seems to be ready to grab the left-field spot alone. Mainly because Guillermo Heredia is filling the role of everyday centerfielder, something the team wanted to avoid. But Heredia is the best defensive centerfielder on the roster, and though his hitting has suffered with the increased at-bats (he’s hitting less than .200 over the past two weeks), his glove and a lack of other options means he’s playing most every day.

The pressure on Dipoto: Though only in his third season, Dipoto knows this team has to win now. He’s all in, willing to take whatever chance he must to get them to the postseason. The Colome trade showed that. If the Mariners start to slip a bit, he’ll be looking to fill whatever hole develops.

Why the Mariners won’t be playing in the postseason …

Felix Hernandez’s inconsistency: Four-man rotations went out with leisure suits. You need five effective starters these days. And Hernandez, despite his brilliant career statistics, is not effective all that often anymore. Oh, he’s still capable of the eight-inning gem he had against Tampa Bay a week ago, but that’s the anomaly, not the norm.

Saturday’s three-inning, six-run, ineffectual start has been more what we’ve seen, as his 5.70 earned-run average shows. And, at age 32 with more than 2,500 major league innings on his right arm, it’s hard to visualize Hernandez improving as the season wears on.

Robinson Cano’s “problem:” He’s out another third of the season. And even when he returns, if the Mariners make the playoffs, he’s not playing. That’s a problem. The saving grace? Since Cano was sidelined with his hand injury and then the suspension, the Mariners have played well. (For extra credit, you could discuss if there is any correlation.)

Injuries: So far Seattle has weathered injuries to Cano, Nelson Cruz, Mike Zunino and Dee Gordon, among others. The backups the M’s have called upon have done the job. But will it continue?

Speaking of continuing, even the positives, like the effectiveness of the four best starting pitchers, can be doubted, considering it’s a new road for a couple of them. Is their success the new normal or just an aberration?

These are the Mariners: History can be a bit … well, let’s just say it can be a tough animal to forget. The M’s haven’t won in a while. As the season stretches on, they’ll be bombarded with questions about their ability to keep it going. After all, not many of these guys have played key roles in a pennant race before. It would be easy to start doubting yourself if there is a string of losses.

So do you believe or do you doubt? Let us know. And don’t forget to show your work.


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