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For Mariners, history and progress in 2012

Felix's perfecto, young players stepping up part of memorable year

SEATTLE -- For the Mariners, 2012 was a step in the right direction. Not a big enough step, granted, and certainly not the full-out sprint everyone in the organization would love to see.

But progress and development of their young nucleus continued in the second year under manager Eric Wedge, with the club improving by eight wins with a 75-87 record and edging its offensive production up by 63 runs.

This was the year the transition to youth became complete, with Ichiro Suzuki traded to the Yankees in midseason as Wedge was given a roster that included 20 players that were either in their first or second Major League season over the course of the year.

Not all of that was by design, as Wedge and general manager Jack Zduriencik had hoped for better veteran leadership and production from players like Ichiro, Franklin Gutierrez, Chone Figgins, Brendan Ryan and Miguel Olivo.

Instead, Ichiro hit just .261 before being dealt, Gutierrez continued to be plagued by health problems, Figgins didn't grab hold of his opportunity when given a shot at the leadoff role, Ryan batted .194 and Olivo saw his playing time diminish with the rise of Jesus Montero and John Jaso.

So Wedge leaned heavily on his young core and some of that paid dividends, particularly the emergence of Jaso, third baseman Kyle Seager, outfielder Michael Saunders, closer Tom Wilhelmsen and rookie relievers Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps.

Montero, 22, and second baseman Dustin Ackley, 24, also played their first full season in the Majors, and while they didn't post huge offensive numbers, they gained experience and took their own steps toward what the Mariners believe will be significant roles in the future.

Here were the Mariners' top five storylines of the year:

5. The longest road trip

The Mariners opened their season with a two-game set in Japan, facing the A's in MLB's Opening Series at the Tokyo Dome. It was certainly a different kind of opener for the Mariners, taking place 4,800 miles away from home at 3 a.m. PT.

But the result was familiar, with Seattle winning its sixth-straight season opener and Ichiro coming through with four hits, much to the delight of his hometown fans in Japan in a game played with a huge advertisement bearing his picture peering down from the top of the dome in left field.

The Mariners also played a pair of exhibition games against Japanese teams during their weeklong visit, but lost the second regular-season game to the A's before making the long flight back to Arizona. The Mariners then went back to Cactus League play for five games before resuming the regular season in Oakland.

4. Pitching prevails once again

While offense continued to be an issue, the Mariners' mound crew proved quite capable while posting a 3.76 ERA, the third-best mark in franchise history. While ace Felix Hernandez lived up to his billing and had an overpowering midseason stretch when he was the best pitcher in baseball, Jason Vargas also came through with a 14-win season as the No. 2 starter, Hisashi Iwakuma emerged with a strong second half, and Blake Beavan provided 11 wins as a 22-year-old in his first full season.

The bullpen was bullish as well, particularly after Wilhelmsen moved into the closer role in place of Brandon League. The big right-hander saved 29 games over the final four months and was eventually joined by flame-throwing rookies Pryor and Capps, along with lefty specialists Charlie Furbush, Oliver Perez and Rule 5 surprise Lucas Luetge. Toss in Josh Kinney and Shawn Kelley and the club was well stocked both for 2012 and the future, as that entire group is coming back.

3. Young guns emerge

The Mariners went to Spring Training not knowing where -- or even if -- Seager and Saunders fit into their Major League roster. But the two youngsters wound up being the team's brightest lights on offense and it didn't take long for their rise to the fore.

Seager moved into the starting lineup at third base on the second day of the regular season in Japan after left fielder Mike Carp hurt his shoulder. That led to Figgins shifting to the outfield, with Seager stepping in at third and never letting up.

The 25-year-old led the club in home runs (20), RBIs (86), doubles (35) and extra-base hits (56) while playing a team-high 155 games. Saunders inherited center-field duties when Gutierrez tore a pectoral muscle in Spring Training, and the 26-year-old -- who'd hit .149 in 2011 -- came through with 19 home runs and a team-leading 21 stolen bases while hitting .247 and playing outstanding defense.

2. Sayonara, Ichiro

After 11 1/2 seasons, it was hard to imagine Ichiro not playing for the Mariners. It was harder still to envision him suiting up and playing against them in Safeco Field, which is exactly what happened when the Yankees acquired the 10-time All-Star on July 23 and had him in right field and batting eighth that same night when the teams faced off in Seattle.

Seattle acquired two pitching prospects -- D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar -- while Ichiro received the chance to compete for a playoff-contending team before becoming a free agent at season's end.

In 1,844 games for the Mariners, Ichiro batted .322 with 2,533 hits, 1,176 runs and 438 stolen bases while racking up 10 Gold Glove Awards, one American League MVP Award, an AL Rookie of the Year Award and two AL batting crowns.

1. It's not easy being perfect

Hernandez achieved the Mariners' first perfect game on Aug. 15, electrifying Safeco Field in a 1-0 win over Tampa Bay on a sunny Seattle afternoon. The historic achievement -- just the 23rd perfect game in MLB history -- came in the 36th year and 5,666th game of the franchise's existence.

And, yeah, for those in attendance that day at Safeco, it was worth the wait. Hernandez was just the seventh pitcher ever to win a 1-0 perfect game and the first in the AL since 1984. His 12 strikeouts were the fourth most in a perfecto.

The following week, in his next start, Hernandez was serenaded by a crowd of nearly 40,000 at Safeco Field, with the entire stadium turned into a "Supreme Court" as fans waved yellow "K" cards and chanted his name. Hernandez, who won his eighth straight decision in a 5-1 victory, called it the best environment he'd ever pitched in.

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.
Read More: Seattle Mariners, Michael Saunders, Carter Capps, Felix Hernandez, John Jaso, Lucas Luetge, Jesus Montero, Kyle Seager, Tom Wilhelmsen