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THE DAILY ROLL

<  Shannon Drayer

Taking stock of the Mariners at the midpoint

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The Mariners are in contention as the second half begins thanks largely to their improved pitching. (AP)

The Mariners reached the midpoint of the season Saturday night and so far, so good. Are you surprised? Five games over .500 at the midpoint – six after Sunday's win – and seemingly on an upswing is a good place to be heading into July. We've seen plenty of good things in the first half and it all begins with the pitching.

Who would have guessed that a year after allowing 754 runs the Mariners would have one of the top pitching staffs in baseball? Well, I did, kind of. One of the few predictions I made in the offseason was the pitching staff would turn things around and that we would see at least a 100-run swing in runs allowed. They are well on their way to that.

Last season the Mariners scored 624 runs and allowed 754, the fourth-most in baseball. Starters 3-5 were not good and the bullpen was horrible. Throw in a subpar defense and a whole lot of runs crossed the plate when the Mariners were in the field. Ugly numbers.

This season it is obviously a different story. With an upgraded rotation – though not the one we expected with Taijuan Walker and James Paxton missing most of the season – as well as the investment made in a closer and a shored-up defense thanks to a commitment to early work, the Mariners have limited their runs allowed to a fraction of what we saw in 2013.

The Mariners had surrendered 428 runs by the midpoint of last season. Through 81 games this season they gave up just 281 for a 147-run swing in the first half. The starting pitching has allowed 71 fewer runs, the bullpen 76. As a staff, Mariners pitchers are allowing opponents a line of just 234/.298/.363/.661. We are seeing some pretty special stuff from the Mariners' arms.

Many did not like the move of signing Fernando Rodney to a two-year deal, but he's anchored that bullpen. With a young team scrapping for wins, there's nothing more demoralizing than ninth-inning losses. Those are the losses that can turn into losing streaks – remember Cleveland and Chicago? – and we really haven't seen that this year. Along with the Rodney move, credit manager Lloyd McClendon with putting his confidence in Tom Wilhelmsen early on. When camp broke and he said Wilhelmsen was his eighth-inning righty, a lot of people were not happy with that. Well, Wilhelmsen has proven to be invaluable and capable of pitching in just about any role.

There have been so many good things in the bullpen but that also is tied to the starters' performances and the bullpen management by McClendon. More often than not you are looking at seven-inning starts with the bullpen falling in line after. All good.

So, about that offense. We have seen progress, but yes, help is still needed. This pitching deserves some offense. That will be the focus in the next month with the trade deadline on the horizon. We will be talking plenty of that.

For now, I want to leave you with something I did on ROOT Sports this weekend. I joined Brad Adam and Aaron Goldsmith on "The Batting Practice Show", which is awesome. If you haven't seen it, tune in when you can. It's just a bunch of broadcasters sitting around watching batting practice and chatting. This week's topic was the first half. Goldsmith and I were asked to give our MVP, biggest surprise and second-half star. Here goes.

MVP

There were a lot of candidates and many I would support, but when all is said and done my MVP for the first half is McClendon. You may not like a lineup he puts out or a move he makes from time to time, but in the big scheme of things he has provided more good for this team than I would have thought possible. Most impressive to me is how in the last month he has used the entire 25-man roster to maximize what he can get out of it. That has translated to wins, often with unlikely characters. That's managing.

I was interested to see if he would have the players throughout the year the way he had them in spring training, and the answer is yes. He got to know them before spring training with visits and calls, and since then he's been up front with his expectations, had his players' backs, known it is better to push when winning and protect when losing, hasn't shown any panic or let the team take a single loss too hard, shown faith in what he has in front of him rather than talk about what he doesn't have and he has worked them – really worked them. That has kept the team one through 25 active and engaged and now I think we are seeing them driven. This team believes it can win.

Finally, as I said above, his management of the pitching has been huge. This is somewhat surprising, and no doubt pitching coach Rick Waits and bullpen coach Mike Rojas have a hand in this as well. Often when you have managers whose foundation is hitting – and make no mistake, McClendon is a hitting guy – they usually are not particularly strong or wise at times with the pitching. McClendon is hands on. From talks with his pitchers about what the hitters see to mound visits to tell a pitcher what to throw – that happened with Danny Farquhar in Kansas City – he seems as in-tune with his pitchers as he is with his hitters. I'm not sure I have seen that before.

McClendon has got this team working and winning, and because of that he is my MVP.

Surprise

A lot of people are going with Chris Young, and for me he's just not a surprise. I expected a healthy Young to be a guy who could more often than not keep the team in a ballgame every five days. He obviously has been more than that, but I thought we would get Young and we did. He's been the good, healthy, Chris Young of 2007. He's not my surprise player but I wouldn't be surprised if he wins Comeback Player of the Year when all is said and done.

I thought about going with James Jones, who certainly has been a good surprise having come from barely on the radar and starting to get to that age where prospects begin to get overlooked if they haven't broken through. But I want to see more.

I thought about going with Robinson Cano because it was a huge surprise to see just how good he is at the plate in person after knowing him more by the numbers for years. Also, it was a great surprise to see him jump with both feet into a leadership role. It was also a surprise to see him adjust and adapt to the pitching he was seeing in a different lineup. That was pretty incredible in my eyes, but Cano as a surprise was pretty ridiculous, so I went with Roenis Elias.

Elias may have been farther off the radar than Jones coming into camp. Heck, we all thought he was a reliever. He may have hit a bump in the road on Saturday but the bumps have been few and far between. That kind of consistency is rare for a rookie, let alone one who skipped Triple-A.

We didn't know what we were getting with Elias and what has impressed me the most is that he is not dependent on his fantastic curveball. He survived a stretch of games where he didn't have his good curve with his fastball and rapidly improving changeup. I think he will continue to have bumps, but over the long haul of the season I think we will see continued development at this level. His eyes are open as evidenced by him watching Roger Clemens/Pedro Martinez matchups on his iPhone in the clubhouse and throwing in some Japanese pitching mechanics in the ninth inning of his complete game against the Tigers. He's an interesting player, one that was invaluable to this team in the first half.

Second-half star

In the "Picks to Click" segment of the pregame show we have a rule that you can only pick Felix Hernandez once a season. Well, I am picking him here for the entire second half.

For Felix, I guess every year should be compared to his Cy Young season in 2010. While we may not see another six-game stretch with just one earned run allowed or a 0.91 ERA over his final 10 games – although every start I see, I'm less sure that is a once-in-a-lifetime stretch – at this point of the season there is little question in my mind he is better than he was in 2010. All of 2010.

His changeup is as nasty if not nastier. His breaking pitches have easily been as good. What's different is he now has added velocity on his fastball. I think hitters are facing the best Felix they have seen and he is showing no sign of slowing down. In fact, he may just be revving up.

What's going on around him will most likely give him a boost. Felix has desperately wanted to make it to the postseason and if this team stays within striking distance that will help Felix kick it into that extra gear he has in the second half. He could put up some silly numbers. The Mariners might have to share their second-half star with all of baseball.

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