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May 13, 2013 at 8:56 AM

Mariners keep winning series, showing gradual offensive improvement

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Nice to be back after a couple of weeks away. I’d like to thank everyone who wrote in to express their sympathies on the death of my mother during heart surgery back on May 3. Special thanks to the Times team for their support and to colleague Larry Stone for his kind words in print and on the phone and for his jumping on a plane to pick up for me in the middle of a road trip.

The Mariners keep on winning and are doing so via strong pitching from the top part of their rotation and continued, albeit gradual, improvement on offense.

We are now 2 1/2 weeks removed from the infamous road trip to Texas where the Mariners got wallopped in five of six games and saw their offense hit rock bottom in terms of strikeouts and production.

Since that trip ended, the team has rallied to go 10-5 the last 15 games. The Mariners are hitting .247 over that span, with a .329 on-base-percentage (OBP), a .405 slugging percentage and an OPS of .734 while scoring an average of 4.1 runs per game.

After that series in Texas ended, the Mariners were 8-15 with a .292 OBP, a .363 slugging mark and a .655 OPS while scoring 3.2 runs per contest. Folks were calling for heads to roll. That part has since stopped, namely since the Mariners keep winning two of every three games.

So, clearly, there has been a marked improvment.

Might some of it have to do with facing lesser quality pitchers? Sure, that factors in. But the Mariners took down a pretty good pitcher yesterday in Tommy Milone of the Oakland Athletics. They somehow managed to beat a dominant-looking A.J. Burnett in Pittsburgh last week, posting a late home run when needed. Heck, they all count.

The Mariners also were dealing with some serious injuries in the series that carried through that trip to Texas and now are playing more at full strength.

The one thing you can’t argue with is the scoring of nearly one more run per game over the last 15 contests.

Score four or more and you’ll be a .500 team when the front end of your rotation is led by Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma.

So, that’s what the Mariners are right now. A .500 team (well, one game worse, but that’s close to vanishing). For me, that’s the bare minimum of what we should have been expecting when the season began. I figured a couple of weeks back that if the Mariners could return to .500 by June 1, their season would be salvaged and could begin anew. Well, they are a half-month ahead of that schedule.

Really, it made sense in March to think that if the Mariners could be at .500 come the all-star break, they’d be in good shape for a second half run.

For now, let’s see whether they continue this .734 OPS pace of the past 15 games.

For the record, a .734 OPS would make the Mariners 9th out of 15 teams in the AL if that was their mark for this entire season. We’re not talking about a juggernaut here; this is mere respectability even at this pace of the past two weeks. The Mariners have won more than they’ve lost the past 15 contests because of stellar pitching by Hernandez and Iwakuma and good pitching at home by Joe Saunders.

It’s unreasonable to expect such great pitching all year long by the top of the rotation, so the offense will eventually have to pick up even more steam and the bottom starters will have to figure some things out or be replaced.

For now, there isn’t much you can do with the starters other than swapping in Jeremy Bonderman for your back end guy at some point soon.

On offense, the team really hasn’t seen all from Michael Morse that he is capable of. His OBP is about 40 points below what you’d expect and that’s why all the homers he’s hit have still not made him the impact player the Mariners hope to eventually have. For me, that’s the biggest key. Morse getting some of his plate discipline back and swinging at better, more hittable pitches.

The other fix is from the shortstop position, where Brendan Ryan is hitting .122 and Robert Andino is at .159. Both guys are living on borrowed time at the moment and really, they should expect to be pulled from the lineup and even the roster any day now if this keeps up. The problem is that the fixes in Class AAA are far from certain. Nobody really knows what Carlos Triunfel will give you defensively and his offense at the big league level might not be much better.

Nick Franklin is hitting big in AAA right now. But the Mariners have already started to view him and play him like a future second baseman. Not sure they feel he can provide the defense-first aspect so crucial to shortstop.

And that is the only reason the Ryan-Andino show has continued.

Don’t forget, as well, that if you bump Andino off the roster, the team would likely wind up going with a second backup infielder and that would force them into an outfield roster call they don’t want to make. Especially with Jason Bay tearing the cover off the ball and Franklin Gutierrez still on the DL.

In other words, there is no easy answer to a middle infield question which appears — on the surface — to be the No. 1 candidate for an instant offensive fix.

Interesting times indeed. Bottom line? Morse has to beome a better hitter in 2013 than he’s shown us thus far. Do that for a lineup that’s sustained a .734 OPS since the Texas debacle and this team will buy time to make it to June, or even the all-star break at least a .500 club. Time to think through the offensive fixes in more detail and decide what they can live with.

After that, it’s anyone’s ballgame.

Comments | More in offense | Topics: michael morse; brendan ryan; jason bay; robert andino

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