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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

July 19, 2007 at 1:17 PM

Kicking it into gear

Woke up this morning, just a few hours after heading off to sleep, and am now in Newark Airport preparing to fly to Toronto. It’s been quite a ride with these Mariners the past month. Now, things are about to come full circle, for me at least. Heading back to Toronto for the first time covering a team other than the Blue Jays.
To “some guy” — a family newspaper means we assume the whole family is reading it. Let’s at least show the younger readers that something happens to our brains from the time we are 5 to when we turn 18-95 (I know that Bill Bavasi’s father reads this blog. We get all ages here).
For the first time in a decade of doing this baseball writing gig, I feel as if I am covering a contending team. I can sense the excitement building from Mariners fans on this blog, in your private emails and in our hit counts that keep going through the roof. We are just a few days away from matching last month’s record for site traffic and it’s only July 19. There are still 12 days left in the month! When I walk through the Seattle Times offices these days, everyone wants to stop and talk about the blog. And about the team. No, it isn’t easy coming up with fresh topics every day. But we’re trying to keep things interesting, topical and controversial at times. Hey, this is fun for me too. I can feel the excitement at the ballpark and in the clubhouse each night. The Mariners I spoke to last night are all aware of what they’ve embarked on, believe me. It’s a new and great feeling to be a part of.
Sure, the Blue Jays won their share over the years. They had 88 wins my first year covering them back in 1998. But while they finished just four out in the wild card race that year, they were actually double-digits behind heading into the final month of the season. That’s no good. That’s an empty 88 wins.
Same with an 86-win squad I covered in 2003. That one was actually a sub-.500 team heading into the final month and again padded its record when it didn’t matter. The best team I had a chance to cover was a 1999 squad that headed into late-July right at the top of the wild-card standings alongside the Boston Red Sox. But then Boston came to town, made mincemeat of the Blue Jays and the team went on to drop a string of games at home that effectively knocked it out of the race. Oh sure, they would hang around at a handful of games back until September, but by then, there were three or four other teams ahead of Toronto in the wild-card standings. Same deal in 2000. Might as well have been 10 games out. Once that happens, it becomes impossible to make up the ground on so many teams in so short a time.
The M’s are a much different story, now within 1 1/2 games of the division lead and a game back in the wild-card hunt. Nobody in front of them but the leaders. They have positioned themselves nicely for the next stage of the race. Manager John McLaren spoke yesterday about the first-half of the season being like a marathon, where you pace yourself and try not to burn out. The second part, this one, is where you pick up the pace and gain separation from the “pretenders” as Seattle has already done with Oakland, Toronto and maybe the Twins very soon. Yes, that corpse that was the New York Yankees is starting to stir. The Yanks seem to be smelling some blood. Can they pull off a sustained second-half run and make up what is still some very formidable ground?
Let’s keep an eye on them and see.
After that, once you get through these “dog days” of late-July and August, it’s an all-out sprint to the finish in September. This is why teams now try to bulk up as the trade deadline approaches, hoping to get strong enough to have that finishing kick when it counts. In my book, the strengths that got the Mariners through to this point may not be enough to carry them all the way through. I still think they need to get stronger, better somehow. We’ve talked about adding another starter, if an arm with quality “stuff” that could potentially stay beyond this year is found. We’ve discussed adding to the bullpen, though Brad Lidge is going to stay in Houston. We have talked about GM Bill Bavasi pulling off a surprise move that no one sees coming. About making internal moves to better the team. Maybe the M’s will sit tight. Maybe they don’t need to get better, even if their closest rivals do. I may be proved wrong in the end, but why would the team want to risk testing that theory?
I asked Raul Ibanez yesterday about his 2003 season with the Kansas City Royals. That Royals squad, managed by Tony Pena, turned the baseball world on its ear by contending for the AL Central crown despite having very little quality pitching. Kansas City used a scorching offense to spend much of the season in first place, but at the trade deadline, the entire universe was howling at them to pick up an impact arm. Didn’t happen. The Royals finally ran out of gas in September and were overtaken by trade-deadline pickup Shannon Stewart and his resurgent Minnesota Twins.
You’ve all asked about the “impact” a deadline deal can have. Yes, the Twins rode the pitching of Johan Santana and Brad Radke down the stretch. But that Minnesota team, to a man, credited Stewart with leading them to the title by jumpstarting their offense and reminding them how to win. Stewart went on to be a top-5 vote-getter for AL MVP that season. I’d say that was a pretty good deadline pickup, for the mere cost of outfielder Bobby Kielty. So, no, despite what you may have read in places, the trade deadline is not a waste of time. There have been entire seasons impacted by moves made. Not all the moves. But smart ones.
Ibanez remembers how his team fell apart when it counted in 2003. He remembers how players had hoped for management to boost the Royals’ cause at the deadline, but failed in that challenge. It’s different every year, he says. Sometimes, there are no moves to be made. As players, he added, it’s better not to get caught up in it all.
The M’s are trying not to get caught up in what Bavasi plans to do these next 12 days. But they are human beings and they wonder. Some of the veterans are worried about whether there will be changes to the “chemistry” that got the club this far. That can be a dirty word in some places. But for players on a winning team, there is such a thing as “chemistry” no matter who tries to tell them otherwise. Ibanez says the current group, unlike those Royals four years ago, feels confident it can finish this race on top if no further moves are made.
I asked Ibanez how he can guarantee these Mariners won’t end up like the Royals, who collapsed into a last-place joke in seasons following 2003. Ibanez nodded, understanding the valid question and pondering it. Then, he pointed to the talent Seattle has up the middle in the infield, something that takes years for some teams to find. Pointed to Felix Hernandez, J.J. Putz and all the bullpen arms locked up beyond this year. He spoke of the good veteran mix that goes along with that, with folks like Ichiro under contract for the next five years and Adrian Beltre for another two. Of the current veterans who are helping the younger players thrive, but are by no means carrying them.
The future, he stated, looks far brighter here than it did on that first-place Kansas City club four Julys ago.
But that future, as everyone knows, especially Ibanez, is never guaranteed. Seattle’s best shot at the playoffs for years to come may actually be decided by what happens, or what doesn’t happen, in these next 12 days leading up to the trade deadline. Remember how it once seemed like 1995-2001 would last forever for this franchise? It didn’t. Those days and the players who made them great are mostly gone.
Life as a contender can be fleeting, unless you’re the Yankees, no matter how bright the future seems. With that in mind, it’s best that everyone, be they the front office, coaching staff, players and fans, not take this present-day success for granted. Enjoy it while it lasts and take the steps to assure that it does. Because you just never know when, or if, it will come around again.

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