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Improving Mariners offense still needs more

MIN View Full Game Coverage NEAPOLIS -- The Seattle Mariners' offense still isn't good enough. But it's better than it used to be, and it's better than you probably think it is.

This is the curse of playing home games in baseball's most extreme pitchers' park. Seattle ranks third in the American League in runs per game on the road and seventh in road OPS, and yet the perception remains that the M's swing wet noodles and soggy newspapers when they come to the plate.

Playing at Target Field, no great hitters' park itself, and facing a solid starter in Scott Diamond, the Mariners squeezed out five runs on nine hits in a 5-2 win Tuesday night. It wasn't spectacular, but it was a continuation of a trend that has seen Seattle become a more potent offensive team in the second half.

"No doubt," said shortstop Brendan Ryan, who had three hits on Tuesday. "It's seemed like month to month, week to week, day to day, there's been clearly some maturation. Better at-bats, guys grinding it out, guys competing the right way and being tougher outs. With one guy doing it, the next guy doing it, it's gotten contagious. I think that's the product you're seeing right now."

A team that managed fewer than 3.9 runs per game before the All-Star break has upped that a bit in the second half, improving to 4.07 since the break. It's still not world-beater stuff, make no mistake. But manager Eric Wedge likes his chances a lot more now than he did at the beginning of the year.

"I felt like we've swung the bats pretty good," Wedge said. "I still feel like we're fishing a little bit, going outside the zone a little bit. ... When you look at what we're trying to do, it's about putting up those quality at-bats. When you get a pitch, you get on it."

Some of it is personnel. They've cut bait, partially or entirely, on some underperforming veterans, and brought in or upped the opportunities for some more-effective younger players.

The mightily struggling but legendary Ichiro Suzuki led the team in plate appearances in the first half, while posting a grisly .288 on-base percentage. The mightily struggling Chone Figgins has 14 at-bats in the second half. Miguel Olivo, enduring a second straight miserable season at the plate, has begun giving way more and more to John Jaso and his on-base skills.

Some of it, though, is maturation of some young hitters. Jesus Montero has begun looking more like the hitter Seattle thought it was acquiring when it traded Michael Pineda over the winter. Dustin Ackley has been much better over the past several weeks than he was for much of the year. These are guys who were projected, not that long ago, to be significant contributors to big league lineups.

Again, let's not sugarcoat this too much. The Mariners still don't have enough offense. They still have too many nights where the starting pitcher feels he needs to put up a zero in order to keep the team in the game. Wedge said Tuesday he'd like to have a veteran or two just to take some pressure off the kids and help them learn from their mistakes.

"When you don't have that veteran big bopper in the middle, these guys are kind of fending for themselves," he said. "As long as they keep getting better, that's the most important part of it. And they are. The overall numbers aren't going to be an indicator of how far they've come and what kind of hitters they are."

It's progress, though. Truth be told, starting pitching has been as much a problem for the M's as the bats this year. The flip side of their offensive splits is a similarly stark pitching disparity. Though the Mariners have baseball's best home ERA, they rank 23rd in road games.

Behind Felix Hernandez, there just hasn't been enough starting pitching. They catch the ball, they get good relief work, and they hit more than their reputation would suggest. It's not enough, but it's a start.

Matthew Leach is an editor and reporter for Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach.

Seattle Mariners, Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero