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Ibanez a leader for Mariners in many ways

Acquired for veteran presence, outfielder leads team in homers, RBIs

SEATTLE -- When the Mariners signed Raul Ibanez to a one-year, $2.75 million contract in free agency last December, general manager Jack Zduriencik listed both his productive left-handed bat and veteran leadership as primary reasons for adding the aging outfielder to a rebuilding club.

That decision has already come up aces on both accounts. Two games shy of the season's halfway point, Ibanez leads the Mariners with 18 home runs and 43 RBIs while playing a far bigger role than anticipated due to injuries to outfielders Franklin Gutierrez and Michael Morse.

As for his influence in the clubhouse? That's been a home run as well for Ibanez, who recently turned 41. He's embraced the idea of being a mentor to a group of young Mariners, some of whom are nearly half his age.

"I think Raul's name speaks for itself," said rookie second baseman Nick Franklin, who is 19 years younger than Ibanez. "I look up to him. I just really want to be like him, I want to be in his shoes years down the road when I'm still playing baseball. Just watching what he does and the routine he goes through, I just watch and learn."

Manager Eric Wedge's eyes light up at the mere mention of Ibanez's part in this season's efforts. As the man in charge of filling out the daily lineup card, Wedge appreciates the pride and preparation Ibanez exhibits in making himself ready and available each game.

And as the skipper in charge of setting the tone for a young team, he values the job Ibanez regularly undertakes to help that effort as well, both in words and actions.

"He's a shining example of what you want a big leaguer to be," Wedge said.

After getting off to a slow start in April, Ibanez has caught fire the past two months. He's hit .274 with 16 home runs and 38 RBIs in 41 games in May and June through Wednesday, with his nine home runs this month tied with Baltimore's Chris Davis for most in the American League.

Ibanez has hit four home runs over the Mariners' last four games. On a team struggling to find offense and consistency in its lineup, an aging veteran signed to be a role player and mentor finds himself third in at-bats and leading the team in slugging percentage.

"It's a testament to Raul," Wedge said. "He's the one guy who has been playing every day and not just DHing, but playing. He's an animal, this guy, really. His body, you look at his shape and discipline. People might get on me for playing him against left-handers, but he does damage. I don't care what his average is, he does damage against left-handers.

"He's just so disciplined and so good. He just handles things. He's a great pro. I mean, he's a great pro."

Ibanez takes a simple approach to things after 19 years in the Majors.

"There's really no secret," Ibanez said. "It's really just good old-fashioned hard work and dedication, preparation, doing everything that you can. Taking care of the stuff that you can control on a daily basis and trying to improve on your game, no matter what age you are. It's never giving in and never giving up and just keep fighting."

Which is precisely the message Wedge loves seeing rubbed off on the younger players in the Mariners clubhouse.

"Just watching him and how he goes about things day in and day out with the same focus, there's no slack in anything," said Franklin. "For him, it's being focused and having his routine. I've learned a lot just by watching him. Beyond that, he's a great guy to just listen to and see what he has to say. He's been around for a while and has seen everything.

"The big thing for me is, as of right now, I don't know anything. So I pay attention to him closely and the things he does and ask questions, even if it's little things, on anything he does."

Ibanez says the younger players have been eager and open to take advice from him and the other veterans, and he's enjoying being part of the young group.

"I try to be there for them and make any suggestions I can to help them out," Ibanez said. "They handle their business very well. I really like the way Franklin goes about his business. And I think very, very highly of Kyle Seager and his professionalism and desire to improve every day.

"Kyle is doing a great job talking to Nick and being in his ear the whole time. I think it's great he's passing that along. These guys have drive and a desire to improve and they're hungry for knowledge. It's to their credit."

Franklin has made an impression since being called up one month ago.

"His approach is phenomenal," said Ibanez. "His first at-bat, he walked. Who does that? Most guys, the pitcher throws the rosin bag and they're swinging. He walked. He stayed calm and under control. He's got a very good approach. He turns the double play very nicely. He works hard at it. He's fun to watch."

Ibanez said Wedge and his staff set the tone by telling younger players that the veterans have some knowledge worth listening to and that, in the end, it comes down to whether the youngsters are willing to buy in.

"It's really to their credit that they want to do it and want to improve and figure some things out," Ibanez said. "If I can help in any way, then that's great. But it also goes both ways. A lot of times in that process, I wind up learning and walking away with something new that helps me, too. It's kind of like a pay-it-forward kind of thing. It's been going on in the game of baseball forever. It's really your responsibility as an older player to pass that along."

But Ibanez knows his first responsibility is getting himself ready to play. He's not a coach, he's a player. And there is a reason he's still producing and is already just one home run shy of the 19 he hit last year in a full season with the Yankees.

"Maybe the plan obviously wasn't for me to play all the time at the beginning of the season," Ibanez said. "But I just try to take care of what I can control. I can't control the lineup, I can't control where the ball drops, I can only control my preparation, and my attitude, and my approach. And I take care of those things on a daily basis."

Ibanez didn't have a home run against a left-handed pitcher last year and thus was viewed as a platoon option by many. But he's hit six of his 18 homers against southpaws this season, and has a higher slugging percentage against lefties than righties.

So as the season has progressed, Wedge's faith has been rewarded. And the trust factor has only grown.

"Even when he wasn't playing early on, I'd think about pinch-hitting him and I'd ask [bench coach] Robbie [Thompson] to make sure he was ready," Wedge said. "And Robbie would take one step down that way and Raul had already been working out the last two hours.

"He's always ready. He is a treat, man. It's a pleasure to have him here. He's a pro. And when you say somebody is a pro in this game, it's the ultimate compliment."

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