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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

June 17, 2011 at 12:36 PM

Surprising Mariners were in very similar position two years ago

One year ago tomorrow, Cliff Lee fired a six-hit shutout to beat the Reds, 1-0, at Safeco Field. It was the 10th of 13 starts he would make for the Mariners before being traded to Texas, and the first of three consecutive complete games by Lee, who happens to be in town tonight with the Phillies.

But I don’t want to talk about one year ago. I want to talk about two years ago, a period of time which bears some important similarities to this season.

After 69 games in 2011, the Mariners are one of the great bounce-back stories in baseball. Responding to their first-year manager, they have a 35-34 record after losing 101 games in 2010, putting them 1/2 game behind the first-place Rangers (36-34), and 2 1/2 games ahead of the third-place Angels (33-37). The A’s are bringing up the rear at 30-40, six games back.

After 69 games in 2009, the Mariners were one of the great bounce-back stories in baseball. Responding to their first-year manager, they had a 35-34 record after losing 101 games in 2008, putting them 2 1/2 games behind the first-place Rangers.

The Rangers at this juncture in 2009 were 37-31 (.526). The Mariners had another team in front of them in 2009, the Angels at 36-31. The A’s were bringing up the rear at 30-38.

As I recall, the same sorts of debates going on now were raging then: Was it real, or an illusion? Could this be one of those years in which no one takes control of the division and the AL West is won with 85 or so victories? Should the Mariners change course at the trade deadline and actually go for it? This blog post from Geoff on June 23, 2009 reflects the mood of the day. He concluded, “This division is shaping up as a wide-open race.”

I thought so, too, particularly in light of a run of injuries by the Angels. But it turned out it wasn’t so wide open. By the July 31 trade deadline, the Angels had run off a 25-9 streak to move to 61-40, while the Rangers ran off a 21-12 streak to go to 58-43. The Mariners, meanwhile, were still hugging close to .500 at 53-50, and had dropped to nine games out of first. There was no more talk of “going for it.” They finished at 85-77, a superb record for a team that had lost 101 the year before, but a distant 12 games behind the Angels, who turned a wide-open race into a runaway. They finished 97-65, 10 games ahead of second-place Texas’s 87-75.

The burning question now is whether there is a team in the field capable of pulling away from the AL West field like the Angels did in 2009, or will 85 or so victories actually be enough to win it this time? The Rangers, fresh off an American League pennant, would seem to be the likeliest candidate for a surge, but they are rife with problems, as are the Angels.

We all know full well what the Mariners biggest issue is — their bats — but it also appears they have the pitching to sustain a run if they can shore up the offense.

I know there’s going to be a raging debate over the next six weeks about what the Mariners should do at the trade deadline — sell, buy, or a combination thereof. But I think we need a little more time to sort out the pretenders and the contenders before making that decision.

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