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McClendon's fresh approach paying dividends

First-year Mariners skipper has quickly gained players' trust, loyalty

SEATTLE -- When the Mariners trot out onto Safeco Field on Tuesday and run down the red carpet in front of a full house for their home opener, they will be led by a new manager, a new presence, in Lloyd McClendon.

And the first-year skipper has indeed quickly brought a fresh perspective to his role as the man in charge of reviving Seattle's hopes after a dozen years without a playoff appearance.

SEATTLE -- When the Mariners trot out onto Safeco Field on Tuesday and run down the red carpet in front of a full house for their home opener, they will be led by a new manager, a new presence, in Lloyd McClendon.

And the first-year skipper has indeed quickly brought a fresh perspective to his role as the man in charge of reviving Seattle's hopes after a dozen years without a playoff appearance.

McClendon doesn't profess to having all the answers. He doesn't make bold proclamations or go on long-winded rants about what it'll take to trend the Mariners in an upward direction in the American League West standings.

But over seven constructive weeks of Spring Training and a promising 4-2 season-opening road trip, McClendon quickly established a strong tone at the top of Seattle's baseball staff, and won players over with his straightforward demeanor and common-sense approach.

McClendon's message to his Mariners from Day 1: Unleash your talents. Prepare and work hard, but relax when the time comes to perform and show what you can do. And don't be afraid to fail at times in the process, because, well, that's how baseball works.

After serving on Jim Leyland's staff with the highly successful Tigers over the past eight years, McClendon felt some of the young Mariners were a bit beaten down upon his arrival. He studied the players, watched film and talked to enough people to see that losing and struggling at the Major League level had eaten away at the confidence level of some youngsters who had arrived with great promise, only to get punched in the face by the unforgiving world of Major League Baseball.

"The one thing I told our players when we came in was that I wanted to change the culture a little bit," McClendon said. "What they have to understand, and I preach this every day, is that the game of baseball is a game of failure. A lot of us have a hard time understanding that.

"I try to put it into perspective. I know [Hall of Famer] Al Kaline. He's a wonderful human being, with 3,000 hits. He also made 7,000 outs. I tell kids that all the time. It's a game of failure. He had 10,000 at-bats and he made 7,000 outs. That's a lot of outs. If you're going to be good, you have to overcome the mental aspect of that, and get back up off the mat every day and get back at it."

McClendon quickly went about putting players in positions in which he felt they could succeed, and then supported and encouraged them with unwavering faith, even if they initially stumbled. He said from the first day of spring that Dustin Ackley was his left fielder, not a roving utility guy searching for his spot. And the former first-round Draft pick took that message to heart, and he has been solid both at the plate and in the field from the beginning of camp into the opening week of play.

McClendon similarly identified Abraham Almonte as his center fielder and leadoff man, despite the 24-year-old having only 25 games of Major League experience. In Almonte's case, McClendon didn't get the instant results, yet he loved Almonte's skill set and physical tools, and he played him almost every game in those spots all spring, even when the rookie wasn't hitting a lick.

By the time the regular season started, Almonte was coming around, and he's been an early catalyst both offensively and in the outfield. Some games have been an adventure, but it says much about McClendon that he has never wavered in his support of the youngster.

"He's shown us how great he's going to be, and he's also shown us how young he is," McClendon said. "You have to live with the mistakes, and encourage him and make him better. But he's got a chance to be a pretty good player. He's got the total package. He's a switch-hitter, he's got power from both sides, he can run like a deer, and he's got an arm like a cannon.

"We understand that he's going to make some mistakes, but you also understand he's going to be great. One day, we're going to be talking about how special a career this young man has had. We just have to continue to help make him better."

Almonte, acquired by trade from the Yankees in February 2013 for reliever Shawn Kelley, says McClendon's support has made all the difference as he's unleashed his speed and aggression in games.

"I feel so good about the way he's treated me," said the young Dominican. "Early in spring, I didn't have really good games. But he gave me comfort and said, 'Just do your best, just be you, don't try to be somebody you're not. Just play the way you know how to play, and everything is going to be fine.' I like the way he talks to the players. He makes you feel comfortable. And when you feel comfortable, it's a lot easier to do things."

McClendon's mantra is already being repeated by his young protégés.

"Let your talent show," Almonte said. "He says, 'Whatever you think you can do, just do it. If you do it wrong and we don't like it, we might tell you the right way to do it.' But he doesn't tell you, 'Hey, you've got to be that guy.' Whatever your instincts are feeling, whatever things you can do, just do it."

McClendon won't live with mistakes for long, however. He pulled Almonte aside again after Sunday's 6-3 loss to the A's, in which Almonte ran into an out trying to go first to third on a single to right by Brad Miller, leaving Robinson Cano standing in the on-deck circle in what could have been a big inning.

"I want them to unleash their talent, be aggressive," McClendon said. "But you also have to be intelligent. I said it before, he's going to make some mistakes. In that situation, you have to know we have our best hitter coming to the plate. You [should only] go to third standing up. In this game, it's unfortunate, but the only way to learn is by making mistakes. And you learn from them."

"That was a little bit risky," Almonte said. "Next time, I will do better with that decision ... because I knew Cano was in the circle. I'll know better next time."

First baseman Justin Smoak is another who has felt McClendon's positive force early. McClendon not only told Smoak that the 27-year-old was his first baseman, he pulled him aside frequently to offer hands-on advice on his hitting and approach at the plate.

"You have to respect the fact that he's been with some really good hitters," Smoak said. "It's pretty interesting. It's awesome."

McClendon's message to Smoak wasn't much different than the big first baseman had heard before, but the manager brought it with such force and clarity that he clearly found a way to get the switch-hitter to relax and focus more on being a consistent line-drive hitter to all fields, instead of trying to muscle up and pull the ball as much.

After totaling just 50 RBIs last season, Smoak had eight in Seattle's first six games, and has provided a needed presence behind Cano in the batting order.

Sure, it's early, but McClendon has reinstilled confidence in former closer Tom Wilhelmsen, gotten the best out of youngsters like Miller and Mike Zunino, let stars Felix Hernandez and Cano follow their own proven routines, and nurtured a starting staff minus Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker into a strong beginning of the season even with the unproven Erasmo Ramirez, James Paxton and Roenis Elias playing major roles.

"He's a player's manager," Zunino said. "You can hold a conversation with him, whether it's about hitting or defense or just everyday stuff. That personal relationship he's having with players is going to get the best out of guys. He can relate to a lot of people."

Yet make no mistake, McClendon has an edge to him. He can be gruff and brutally direct when needed. McClendon minces few words when making a point. While he's relaxed considerably since his initial go-round in the manager's chair in Pittsburgh, he remains the same driven leader.

Repeated mistakes won't be tolerated. And any mistakes will be addressed directly, face to face, in a prompt fashion.

"He's crazy passionate," said veteran designated hitter Corey Hart. "He's fun. I've played with some guys that don't talk. I've played for some guys that don't like confrontation. He's kind of like Ned Yost, very passionate, very aggressive. He doesn't want anything to get by him.

"He's a very educated baseball man, and you can tell he hasn't forgotten how hard this game is, but at the same time, he was a hard player and he wants you to play hard. That's kind of his thing, and it'll be good for these young guys, if things go wrong, to have a guy that gets on them. I'm excited to be a part of this team."

McClendon earned instant points with his players when he came strongly to Cano's defense when the Mariners' new star was criticized by Yankees hitting instructor Kevin Long at the start of spring for his perceived lack of hustle on routine grounders.

"I love it," Hart said. "He's got your back all the time. I like knowing if something goes wrong out there, he's going to be coming out and be right by your side. For a player, that's all you can ask. You might not want to hear some of the things he says, because if you struggle, he's going to tell you. And rightfully so. You don't want a guy who is going to sugarcoat things. He's going to come right at you, and that's what this game is all about. You have to have thick skin. I learned that the hard way sometimes, but it's good. It makes you better as a player."

Not everything will go smoothly throughout the season, and nobody knows that better than McClendon, who endured five losing seasons with some not-so-talented Pirates clubs in his first managerial stint from 2001-05.

But McClendon sees promise in these Mariners, in their work ethic and youthful skill set. And after the first six-game road trip in the long grind of a 162-game season, the new skipper sounded optimistic as his team headed home.

"I like where we are," McClendon said. "I like our state of mind. I think our guys are very confident in what they're doing. They believe in their talents, they believe in each other, and that's good. And I think they know they can play. We just have to shore up some mistakes, continue to work on those things, and I think this team is going to be just fine."

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.

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