Seattle fresh, tested for second-half run
Involved in close games, Mariners take it easy on hurlers
SEATTLE -- First-year manager Don Wakamatsu and pitching coach Rick Adair have gone out of their way to prevent Mariners pitchers from being overworked heading into the second half of the season.
With complete games so rare these days, having a quality and healthy team of relievers are essential for any playoff contender, and make no mistake about it, the Mariners, who lost 101 games last season, believe they have a shot at playing well into October this season.Thanks to playing so many close games -- 46 of their first 83 games were decided by one (21-13) or two (5-7) runs -- the Mariners are accustomed to performing under the pressures associated with nail-bitters. That could loom large during the dog days of summer, as Seattle attempts to reach the postseason for the first time since 2001. And unless the best-on-paper Angels get hot and run away from everyone, this could be a three-team race all the way to the finish line with the Rangers also involved. Any starting rotation that includes Felix Hernandez, Jarrod Washburn and Erik Bedard has the makings of being one of the best in the AL. Add right-hander Brandon Morrow and either of two lefties -- Jason Vargas or Garrett Olson -- and that's a top-notch rotation. If the second half comes anywhere close to matching the first half, Mariners fans can look forward to watching a team of overachievers make a run at one of the most memorable seasons in franchise history. Club MVP: Right fielder Ichiro Suzuki does more than just collect hits, he collects hits consistently. Well on his way to a ninth straight 200-hit season, Ichiro had a career-high and club-record 27-game hitting streak in May, and he never went more than one game without at least one hit during the first half of his ninth season. Call him "Ace:" Felix Hernandez was plodding along until mid-May, when he received a verbal challenge from Wakamatsu to pitch up to his "ace" reputation. The right-hander shifted gears and became an All-Star for the first time, reeling off one quality start after another in June, earning him AL Pitcher of the Month honors. Greatest strength: The bullpen has been very good. On most days, hand the ball and the lead to Shawn Kelley, Sean White and then to closer David Aardsma and you can shake hands afterward. Miguel Batista and Chris Jakubauskas also have contributed, which has enabled the team to come from behind so often and lead the Major Leagues with a 2.98 ERA in June. Biggest problems: A hit-and miss offense has put more pressure on the pitching staff. The loss of swift Endy Chavez (knee) and steady Adrian Beltre (shoulder), who was batting .314 with eight doubles in June before undergoing surgery, further challenged the already-challenged offense. Figuring out what to do with right-hander Carlos Silva could become a second-half issue. Biggest surprise: Aardsma. The right-hander had no career saves on his resume coming into the season, but he replaced a struggling Morrow in early May and has been almost perfect, going 16-for-17 in save situations through the first half of the season. He did not allow an earned run in June, logging 11 scoreless innings and going 8-for-8 in saves. Team needs: At least one more bat to take some of the load off first baseman Russell Branyan, who has been the only real power source in the lineup, already hitting a career-best 21 home runs. Bedard needs to stay healthy the second half of the season. He said it: "We've had injuries [the disabled list has been used 14 times] and bereavement leaves [two], but we have stayed motivated and guys have stepped up." -- Wakamatsu. Mark your calendar: A 10-game road trip against the Athletics, Angels and Rangers from Sept. 3-13 will be like playing a doubleheader every game. If the Mariners are still in the AL West or Wild Card race when they come home, they have a three-game series against the Yankees (Sept. 18-20) to look forward to. Fearless second-half prediction: The Mariners will get Beltre back during the final week of August, Ken Griffey Jr. will go on a home run binge in September and the Mariners will win 87 games -- falling just short of the playoffs, nonetheless earning Wakamatsu Manager of the Year honors.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.