Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon has had his finger on the pulse of his team from day one. He knows his players. He knows when to push his players and he knows when to take the pressure off. We have seen the conversations on the field and caught quick glimpses off conversations off the field.
"We are always talking," Felix Hernandez said. "We were talking before spring training. I'm good with everything. Whatever you do, good. You're the boss."
In past years, Felix was rather loud and demonstrative about wanting to stay in games. More recently it was more about putting on a show when he would put up brief resistance to being taken out, but now there is not a peep out of him – despite the fact that he has yet to throw a complete game this year – when McClendon comes to the hill to take the ball from him.
"He saved my arm pretty good," Felix said. "It feels real strong right now. I think it is a reason why I am having success now."
Having the best bullpen in baseball doesn't hurt, either.
"It's easy to hand the ball off. If you go six, you are going to win," Felix said. "You've got Maurer and Medina and then Rodney, done."
The sum is greater than the parts, even one of the greatest parts. It is a tone that has been set by the manager. What's more important: your complete game or the win and an inning or two taken off your arm? Felix gets it as does the rest of the team.
"He's making a lot of difference," Felix said. "He's our boss, he's the key to why this team has been so good."
Sometimes the boss has to get tough, and we have seen that. McClendon has never been shy about giving a push, a public push, when he feels it is necessary. He had strong words about the pitching he was seeing from Erasmo Ramirez in spring training. A message was sent loud and clear that five innings was not enough from Taijuan Walker in minor-league outings. Kyle Seager was not a .260 hitter. A 12-game hitting streak for Logan Morrison was nice, but what McClendon really needed from his first baseman was power and RBIs. Strong words but words with intention behind them.
"I think players appreciate your honesty, but it is a two-way street," McClendon said. "You have got to be able to give in order to take. I give my players a lot. When I ask, I think they are willing to give back. I liken it a lot to a deposit into a bank. Sometimes you are going to need a withdrawal. I give them a lot so when I do go back and ask, say, 'I need you to pick it up,' I can withdraw a little bit."
It can be looked at as a push. There is no lack of effort with anyone on the team but the vision sometimes is different. Coming from McClendon, this is a good thing.
"I challenged Seager earlier in the year and I am challenging (Morrison) because I think there is a lot more in there," McClendon said. "This is my take on this and I'm real honest with him. This is what I tell him. If I didn't think he could do it I wouldn't waste my time talking to him. But I know it is in him. I know he is capable of doing it and he's getting better. Not quite there, but getting better."
McClendon has seen improvement in Ramirez as well.
"I think he's a big-league pitcher in waiting now," McClendon said. "Unfortunately we don't have that spot now but he's come back and pitched in two important games and the last one we won. Has he gotten better? Yeah, I have been very pleased with the work. I am very pleased with where he is now."
We have seen a good amount of development in individuals on the Mariners this year. A tremendous amount of work has gone into making players better. You only need to look so far as the early work that his being done to see the commitment. It has paid off, particularly with the defense. The individual work and conversations appears to be paying off as well. The challenges are being taken and more importantly, issued.
"I've had players not like it but they respect it," McClendon said. "I was a player and listen, when you are honest with a player and you tell them where you are coming from, what you believe in and what you think they can do, they will always respect it. They may not always like it, but they will respect what you are trying to tell them and that's all you are looking for is mutual respect."