When the Mariners left spring training, first-year manager Lloyd McClendon didn't know exactly what kind of team he had. In fact, he said he probably wouldn't know until 50 or 60 games into the season.
Those marks have come and gone, and as the All-Star break hits, the Mariners have a 51-44 record and are right in the thick of the postseason race. That's a pretty strong indication of what kind of team they are – 51 is the most wins they've had at the break since the 2003 team had 58, and they're in the running to snap a 13-year playoff drought.
So how have the Mariners done it? With a little bit of offense and a whole lot of stellar pitching.
Felix Hernandez just capped off the best first half of his career, Hisashi Iwakuma has been an above-average No. 2 starter, and Chris Young and Roenis Elias both had stretches of brilliance. And don't forget the bullpen, perhaps the best in the American League.
"I thought our pitching was going to be pretty good," McClendon said. "I didn't know about our offense – I still don't know about our offense – but I know our pitching's pretty darn good (and) our bullpen's been better than I thought it was going to be. So I like where we are."
Of course, the offense still has its kinks to work out. Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager are All-Stars, but the rest of the lineup has been inconsistent at best, and general manager Jack Zduriencik may be prompted to make a move or two before the July 31 trade deadline. From McClendon's standpoint, Zduriencik has prepared the organization well for a time like this.
"My general manager is taking a lot of heat about where this organization has been and where it's going, but this organization is in pretty good shape," he said. "You think about this organization and the pieces that we have within this system, if we wanted to do things ... if we wanted to reach out to other clubs, it's pretty darn good, and I don't think there's a lot of clubs in baseball like that."
What happens in the second half of the season notwithstanding, McClendon is very pleased with what the squad has done in his first half-season. And if nothing else, he believes the Mariners have gone a long way in changing the perception of what kind of team they are after finishing with losing records in five of the last six years.
"To win the number of games we've won in the first half is significant," he said. "To think about where we've come from my introductory news conference ... the negativity that was surrounding this club, the doubts, I think this organization has come quite far. I think we've accomplished a lot, but in the end we haven't accomplished anything. But I certainly think we're heading in the right direction."
This weekend's series win over the league-leading Athletics seemed to be proof. The Mariners took the first two games of the three-game set in front of large, raucous crowds, and the wins were big ones as they moved Seattle a full game closer to Oakland in the standings.
"I think it's nice for our fans this weekend – the electricity, the amount of people that were in the ballpark," McClendon said.
As for what happens after the break, McClendon was very optimistic about what the Mariners could do. A lot of that has to do with Cano, the superstar second baseman who sports a .334 average, .855 OPS, seven home runs and 57 RBIs.
"I've seen this guy hot. I'm not sure if you guys have," said McClendon, who saw a lot of Cano when he was the Tigers' hitting coach and Cano was with the Yankees. "He's getting there but he's not quite there yet. He can do some things that leaves you scratching your head saying, 'Wow. How did he do that?' He's getting there."
If the Mariners are going to make the postseason, the pitching is still going to be the biggest reason, though.
"I think if we continue to pitch the way we're pitching and we stay healthy from an offensive standpoint, we've got as good a shot as anybody else (to make the playoffs)," McClendon said. "So far our pitching's been shut-down kind of pitching.
"Do we have challenges? Absolutely we have challenges. We all know that. I know this – when you can shut down other teams, it makes those challenges a little easier to climb."