By Shannon Drayer
Thirty-four games in, the Mariners have endured a rather unpleasant eight-game losing streak and diabolical early travel schedule, yet somehow find themselves two games over .500. They have won 11 of their last 14 since the losing streak, with perhaps the most impressive win coming with last night's 1-0 win over the Royals.
Sure, the Mariners managed just two hits in that game but after averaging almost six runs a game over their last 12. I wasn't too concerned about that. Hisashi Iwakuma's eight scoreless innings was certainly impressive, but even more impressive to me was the play in the field.
Coming off the nine-game, 6,400-mile road trip that ended with the doubleheader in Oakland, the defense – the much-needed defense – was incredibly sharp. Those in the game will tell you 1-0 games are a totally different monster.
The Mariners have won a number of one-run games, but a 1-0 game brings a different kind of intensity. When you are not scoring there is literally no room for error. The stakes are much higher for everyone involved, and the team stepped up Thursday. It was a game they couldn't and didn't win a year ago. You have to go back to September 2012 to find the Mariners' last 1-0 win.
After the game, manager Lloyd McClendon put his stamp of approval on the effort, declaring that everyone got ice cream. He also added this.
"This has been a tough month and a half in a lot of different ways, and I think when it's all said and done, maybe we are not as bad as people thought we were."
Now from the comments I have seen here and a number of emails that I have received, I didn't get the feeling that the majority of those of you who follow this blog believed that this team was truly bad. Sure, there were some moments where a good amount of angst was released during the losing streak, but most of you seemed to be taking a big picture approach. So with that said, are they better than you thought they were?
I'm not sure what I thought they were, both at the beginning of the season and during the losing streak. I have a very definite picture of what I think they can be, but I think I have been taking the extreme wait and see approach, which probably has less to do with this team and more to do with what we have seen in recent years.
What I have wanted to see from this team for years is improvement with the young players in particular as the year goes on. I think we are seeing it now, and what struck me this week in Oakland, in both what I saw and heard, is this doesn't just happen.
No, Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley don't just start hitting to all fields because they have played a certain number of games or had the right number of at-bats. Sac bunts aren't finally successful because the hitter got lucky. Charlie Furbush's breaking ball just doesn't magically reappear and batters don't just start doing the right thing with runners in scoring position. It is a process, and it is a process that started in spring training and we are now seeing results. Results that we should have a good chance of seeing with more consistency if the work continues.
Smoak may be setting the example.
"He's getting better," McClendon said earlier this week. "I am really, really proud of his work ethic and how he's going about it. He understands his deficiencies in his swing from both sides and is willing to try to make the adjustment, and as a result he is getting positive results. When is the last time we saw him hit a line drive inside the third baseline? And that is from swing path. Making sure you stay inside the ball and try not to do too much."
Hitting one to the opposite field has been necessary with the shifts that Smoak has been seeing. Rather than bemoan the shift or say that there is not much you can do about it or you can't let it get in your head, Smoak and others have been doing something about it by changing their approach and realizing that is not a bad thing. It turns out McClendon gave them a push in that direction.
"This is what I told my players, is if you really think about it, if a team puts the shift on you, what the other manager is telling you is you are not good enough to hit the ball the other way. I just put it on them," he said. "Tell it like it is. You ought to have a little bit more pride and take a better approach. Our guys are buying into it and doing a good job."
McClendon challenged his hitters. It has been interesting to see how he picks his spots to do so and let us in on it. In spring training it seemed no one could do any wrong. We walked away from just about every media session with the impression that McClendon loved absolutely everyone and, with the exception of Erasmo Ramirez, everyone was doing great.
Through the losing streak, again, what we heard from the skipper was mostly support of his players. Then came the winning and the time to push. A number of times in the last two weeks McClendon has pointed to mistakes in wins and groused about not playing well in some wins.
Sourpuss? Hardly. It is the perfect time to get on guys. We're winning, you can do better. The pressure on the individuals is lessened with the wins, intensified in losses. Several conversations about baserunning took place during the Oakland series.
"One of the ways you close the gap is you run the bases well," McClendon pointed out when asked about the recent surge in aggressiveness on the base paths. "There have been times we haven't run the bases well. That's the one thing that gets lost in all this. When we win nobody talks about it but if we lose people say, 'Well how in the hell can Zunino get thrown out at third and make the last out?'
"The other day we won the game and nobody talked about Romero getting thrown out at third and making the first out. But these are things we have to point out and continue to teach and encourage our players. We can't forget them. Because if you do forget them, even when you win sometimes you play a bad game, and when you lose sometimes you can play an outstanding game. So these are the things that we have to manage and continue to encourage and teach our players about."
McClendon elaborated on the Romero instance.
"His heart was in the right place, but the first and third out can't be there. You have to , you have to be darn sure that you are going to be safe. Regardless of the effort or intention. You don't get ice cream for playing well and losing."
Definitely a different tone and intensity from what we heard during the losing streak. When the team was not doing well it was baseball. They were going to be okay. Now he is asking for more. Winning is great, but we can be better.
And they can be. With Iwakuma back and the bullpen starting to show signs of stabilizing, this team is better than it was two weeks ago, even without the additions of James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. Let's see what the emphasis on cleaning up mistakes and continued work in the cages does moving forward with the young hitters, including Brad Miller – who is starting to make better contact and take a few walks.
Are they better than I thought they were? I'm not sure, but I am beginning to believe that they have more potential than I thought they did.