Mariners' play at Safeco may turn playoff key
With the AL's third-best road record, Seattle looks to pick up pace on home field
SEATTLE -- With two months left in the regular season, the Mariners find themselves two games off the pace for the American League's second Wild Card berth.
Here are five things they need to do to make a push for their first playoff berth since 2001:
1. Solve the Safeco situation
The Mariners have the third-best road record in the AL at 31-23, but winning at home -- where the victories are supposed to come easier -- has been a difficult proposition. Seattle is 26-31 at Safeco Field heading into a nine-game homestand that starts on Tuesday against the Braves.
With 15 of their 24 remaining games this month at home, manager Lloyd McClendon's club has a chance to make a move if it can regain a home-field advantage. But to date, the Mariners have averaged 3.3 runs per game at home, where they're hitting .235, compared to 4.3 runs per game on the road with a .251 average.
Some of that is attributable to Safeco's noted offensive difficulties, but Seattle's opponents don't have nearly as big a discrepancy as they're averaging 3.3 runs a game at Safeco with a .219 batting average, while they're scoring 3.3 runs with a .232 batting average in Mariners road games.
Bottom line, Seattle's pitching has been good enough to rank in the top two in the league both home and away, but the offense has been able to support that pitching much better when away from Safeco.
2. Keep the stars aligned
The age-old axiom in baseball is that to have a good season, a team needs its best players to play well. And no team has managed that any better so far than Seattle, where Felix Hernandez is putting up the best numbers of his career, Hisashi Iwakuma has been very strong after missing the first month, Robinson Cano ranks among the AL leaders in batting average, third baseman Kyle Seager is leading the club in RBIs and earned his first All-Star berth, while closer Fernando Rodney shares the league lead in saves.
It's taken all of that for Seattle to stay close in the playoff race and the Mariners can ill-afford any of their premier players get hurt or slump in August and September. Hernandez, in particular, hasn't finished strong in recent years, with a surprising 1-9 record and a 5.54 ERA in September over the last three seasons.
Hernandez worked hard last offseason to strengthen his lower body to stay stronger for the long haul, which may be one of the reasons he's pitched so well earlier in the season as well. And McClendon believes all his stars are shining a little brighter this year with the addition of Cano to the constellation.
"I think it does a lot from a mojo standpoint to have that star guy in the middle of your lineup," McClendon said. "I've said it time and time again, great players make other players better. I think Robinson Cano makes our other players better in a lot of different respects.
"And a lot of it starts with how you put your uniform on and whether or not your chest is stuck out a little bit. Our guys are at a point now where they believe in what they're doing and they believe in their talent. And that takes you a long way."
3. Stay bullish with the bullpen
Perhaps the biggest surprise -- and biggest key -- in Seattle's winning record to date is a bullpen that ranks first in the Majors with a 2.37 ERA. The cast of characters isn't that much different than last year, though Rodney, veteran lefty Joe Beimel and rookie Dominic Leone have been added to the mix. But the relievers have done a huge turnaround from 2013, when Seattle was 29th among 30 MLB teams with a 4.58 bullpen ERA.
Rodney has helped solidify the group with his veteran presence in the closer's role, Beimel would be a strong candidate for AL Comeback Player of the Year honors if not for the even-better rebound season of teammate Chris Young in the starting rotation, and Leone has been a valuable addition as a versatile middle-inning and setup option.
But returners Tom Wilhelmsen , Danny Farquhar , Charlie Furbush and Yoervis Medina have been far more consistent than last season and the entire group has stayed strong and healthy to date, with McClendon mixing and matching extremely well while spreading out the workload. The midseason addition of Brandon Maurer -- who has been a revelation in his new role -- has only enhanced the team's biggest strength.
4. Find an extra offensive gear somewhere
Whether it's Cano producing more power and run production or new addition Austin Jackson supplying a spark atop the order or designated hitter Kendrys Morales finding his stroke after his late start, the Mariners must improve offensively.
Powerhouse pitching is grand -- and it has definitely put Seattle in position to compete for a playoff berth -- but it's clear the Mariners need more oomph in their batting order to take the next step. Seattle has been held to two or fewer runs in 16 of its last 26 games and has gone 1-15 in those outings.
McClendon says he likes his new lineup, with the addition of right-handed hitters Jackson and Chris Denorfia at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, and Morales showing initial signs of thawing after his late start. The Mariners don't need a huge offensive increase, they just need enough of a scoring boost to take advantage of their pitching.
It's pretty simple, really. When the Mariners score three or more runs, they're 52-17. When they score fewer than three, they're 5-37.
5. Keep beating the big boys
The Mariners have done an excellent job of competing with the best teams in baseball, posting a 32-24 record against teams currently above .500 and 18-17 against teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended now.
But they're 25-30 against teams with losing records, which makes no sense at all. But then, neither does a winning record on the road and a lousy record at home. Or a 22-15 record against left-handed starters with a lineup that was extremely lefty-leaning for most of the season, but a 35-39 mark against right-handers.
"Everything has been backward for us," McClendon said. "We've played [bad] at home, we've played well on the road. We beat up on left-handers. I don't know. I don't get it. I'm just rolling with it. If you've got the answer, tell me, because I don't."
But the Mariners will need to keep rolling against winning teams because 28 of their remaining 51 games are against above .500 clubs.
In other words, the Mariners still have a golden opportunity to control their own fate. And if they find a way to get in the playoffs, they'll have earned it.