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Despite uneven 1st half, Seattle set for WC push

Injuries to the rotation hurt, but OF defense and superstars could lift club to postseason
MLB.com @gregjohnsmlb

SEATTLE -- For a team that believes it should be contending for a postseason berth this season, the Mariners hit the All-Star break feeling they've underperformed. But there's also a sense that the club weathered some storms, mostly injury-related, and is very capable of getting back in the thick of things after a 43-47 first half.

Seattle hit the break sitting four games out of an American League Wild Card berth. It's certainly not where the Mariners want to be, particularly after losing 10 out of their last 14 to nullify a strong mid-June push that had finally lifted them above .500.

SEATTLE -- For a team that believes it should be contending for a postseason berth this season, the Mariners hit the All-Star break feeling they've underperformed. But there's also a sense that the club weathered some storms, mostly injury-related, and is very capable of getting back in the thick of things after a 43-47 first half.

Seattle hit the break sitting four games out of an American League Wild Card berth. It's certainly not where the Mariners want to be, particularly after losing 10 out of their last 14 to nullify a strong mid-June push that had finally lifted them above .500.

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It's that inconsistency that has plagued the Mariners and put them in fourth place in an AL West where everyone is chasing the red-hot Astros. But after playing much of the first half with four of their original five rotation members and numerous key position players on the disabled list at various times, the club has gotten healthier in the past few weeks and has shown its offense can be one of the best in baseball when everything is clicking.

"We have a good team," manager Scott Servais said. "I certainly believe we do. We have a very talented team. And over the course of a season, the talent usually plays out. Unfortunately we've had some swoons where we have not played well. We haven't hit well, we haven't pitched well. It's just a combination of everything. But we still have a lot of games to play and our talent will come to the forefront. It always does."

What went right
General manager Jerry Dipoto succeeded in creating a far more athletic and defensive-minded outfield with the additions of Ben Gamel, Jarrod Dyson and Mitch Haniger. New shortstop Jean Segura filled the leadoff role so well he was signed to a five-year extension. Catcher Mike Zunino overcame a bad first month by going to Triple-A Tacoma before returning with a record-smashing June. Veterans Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano produced All-Star first halves. The club stayed afloat despite the rash of injuries, thanks to surprising contributions from Gamel and a number of pitchers not in the original rotation, including Ariel Miranda, rookie Sam Gaviglio and journeyman Christian Bergman. And when healthy, James Paxton looked like a developing ace.

What went wrong
Closer Edwin Diaz hasn't been as dominant as his brilliant rookie season, leading to some tough late-inning losses. Injuries hit Seattle early and often, particularly in the rotation. Lefty Drew Smyly injured his elbow during Spring Training and eventually underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery. Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma both missed two months with shoulder issues, while Paxton was sidelined five weeks by a strained forearm. Shortstop Segura had two DL stints, right fielder Haniger was sidelined nearly two months, and Cano sat out a couple weeks as well. Most disappointing was that when most of those standouts returned, the club didn't take advantage of a favorable home schedule and stumbled into the break.

What we learned
Hernandez might not be a dominant ace any more, but the Mariners need him to remain an important piece of the rotation and he closed out the first half with his best outing of the year. Paxton has the potential to be a powerhouse lefty and rookie right-hander Andrew Moore appears ready to contribute in the second half. Outfield defense can be a wonderful thing, as Seattle ranked among the best in baseball in run prevention. When things are clicking, the Mariners' lineup can be as productive as any in baseball. It's also capable of some really rough stretches, particularly if Cano and Cruz aren't healthy or productive. And the Astros are going to be very tough to beat.

Video: KC@SEA: Moore fans Gordon for his first strikeout

First half top everyday player
Cruz remained a force in the middle of the lineup despite playing through a series of nagging injuries. The 37-year-old cleanup man is tied with Colorado's Nolan Arenado for the Major League lead in RBIs with 70, and he's posted a healthy .292/.372/.520 line with 17 homers in 85 games. Fellow All-Star Cano was productive as well, with a .275/.332/.481 line with 17 homers and 60 RBIs in 79 games, but the nod clearly goes to Cruz, following his strong first-half finish.

Video: OAK@SEA: Cruz crushes a two-run homer to center field

First half top pitcher
Despite spending a month on the DL, Paxton clearly was Seattle's best hurler. The 27-year-old had an overpowering April, then struggled a bit when he returned. But he closed out the first half with two more dominant starts, and he hit the break with a 7-3 record and a 3.21 ERA in 14 starts. With the ability to hit 95-97 mph with his fastball deep into games, Paxton can be a powerful force when he combines that heat with a quality curve or slider. He struck out 91 in 81 1/3 innings.

Video: OAK@SEA: Paxton fans nine over seven innings in win

First half top rookie
Gamel burst onto the scene in impressive fashion, but only after Haniger strained his oblique after a sensational first three weeks. That led to a Tacoma callup for the 25-year-old outfielder, and he wound up posting a .323/.379/.449 line with four homers, 29 RBIs and 42 runs in 66 games. Prior to his injury, there was talk of Haniger looking like an AL Rookie of the Year Award candidate. But by midseason, Gamel had thrust his own name into that conversation, at least in the non-Aaron Judge category.

Video: OAK@SEA: Gamel plates Segura with a base hit

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.

Seattle Mariners