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Cruz's homer quest among Mariners stories to watch

OAKLAND -- As the Mariners hit the September home stretch, things obviously aren't where they'd like them to be with four weeks remaining. Their general manager has been dismissed, and their playoff hopes all but extinguished in a year that began with lofty expectations.

But there are games still to be played -- 28 to be exact -- and storylines still to be finished. If you're wondering what's left, here are five things worth watching in Seattle's closing contests of 2015:

1. How high can Cruz climb?
If one player has performed better than anyone could have imagined this season, it's Nelson Cruz, who leads the Majors with 39 homers. One more will make him the first Mariner to hit 40 since Alex Rodriguez totaled 41 in 2000.

Cruz already has the 13th most home runs by a Mariner in a season, and if he gets to 45, he'll be the only Mariner not named Ken Griffey Jr. to achieve that number. Cruz hits Thursday's off-day one homer ahead of Chris Davis of the Orioles for the MLB lead. If he finishes the year atop that stack, he'll be the first player since Babe Ruth in 1919-20 to lead the Majors in back-to-back years for two different teams.

Video: [email protected]: Cruz smokes 38th homer to left-center field

2. A finish fit for a King?
Felix Hernandez has had better seasons than his current voyage, but he's only once had more than the 15 wins he currently owns with six starts remaining if he stays healthy.

Hernandez's career-best record was 19-5 in 2009. He's currently at 15-8. And while wins aren't the favored measure of greatness for pitchers in this era of analytics, there remains an impressive aura about becoming a 20-game winner.

Jamie Moyer (21-7 in 2003 and 20-6 in '01) and Randy Johnson (20-4 in 1997) are the only Mariners to hit that mark. You can bet the King would love to hang a 20 next to his name as well, though he'll have to pitch extremely well and get some help from his team.

3. Center of attention
Whoever becomes the next GM will have holes to fill in an outfield that turned into a merry-go-round this year. Remember, the plan out of spring was to platoon Dustin Ackley and Rickie Weeks in left field, Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano in right and have Austin Jackson patrol center.

Fast forward to Wednesday in Houston when manager Lloyd McClendon's outfield consisted of Franklin Gutierrez, Shawn O'Malley and Stefen Romero. Of the original five, Ackley, Jackson and Ruggiano have all been traded, Weeks is out of baseball, and only Smith remains with the team.

Video: [email protected]: Miller robs Gonzalez with running catch

Cruz has wound up playing a lot more right field than expected, but the biggest surprise now is having shortstop Brad Miller auditioning in center for the final month. Rookie Ketel Marte has looked impressive at shortstop since being called up a month ago. So if Miller proves adept in center, the Mariners would head into next year with two fewer holes to worry about on the position side and could focus their resources on adding other much-needed elements.

4. Some needed closure
The biggest issue for this year's Mariners has been the bullpen, and the biggest problem in that group was the closer role. After going from veteran Fernando Rodney to rookie Carson Smith, McClendon finally opted for 31-year-old middle man Tom Wilhelmsen, and initial results have been intriguing.

Wilhelmsen racked up 53 saves in 2012-13, but he took it hard when he hit a rough patch and wound up being moved to middle relief. The former bartender says he learned a lot in the ensuing two seasons about how to deal with success and failure, and he's certainly looked comfortable zipping through his first six save opportunities since McClendon made the change.

If Wilhelmsen continues showing he can be a quality closer over the final month and Smith impresses again in the setup role, that would be a big positive for a bullpen that is going to need a lot of overhauling this winter.

Video: [email protected]: Wilhelmsen fans three in five-out save

5. The comeback story
Amid all the disappointments of 2015, Gutierrez continues providing a ray of light. After sitting out all last season to deal with ankylosing spondylitis, the 32-year-old has hit .315 with 10 doubles, 11 homers and 30 RBIs in 44 games and has the highest slugging percentage in the Majors of any player with more than 100 at-bats at .646. For comparison purposes, Cruz is at .587 in his own sensational season.

Can Guti keep it up? His health continues to be a challenge, he can't play every day, and who knows whether he figures as part of the Mariners' future. But sometimes it's best just to enjoy the moment, and watching Gutierrez perform at such a high level after all he's been through is part of what makes a baseball season fascinating, no matter what else is going on.

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB, read his Mariners Musings blog, and listen to his podcast.
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