Five reasons why the Mariners are creating a buzz

SEATTLE — In recent years, the Seattle Mariners probably wouldn’t have come back from a two-run deficit in the ninth inning like they did in Saturday’s 14-inning win in Chicago. More significantly, whether they could have pulled off that late-game comeback or not, you probably wouldn’t have cared by early July.

Yet here we sit, just past the halfway point of the season and just shy of the All-Star break, and the Mariners have done something unseen around these parts in a long, long time: they’re relevant in summer. Actually, they’re more than that, they’re a compelling, entertaining, and yes, pretty darn good baseball team.

We’re past “real” start of summer in the Puget Sound region, July 5, and guess what, the Mariners are not only winning, they’re legitimate playoff contenders. It’s understandable if this is a foreign feeling for you. The Mariners haven’t give you much to get excited about in the past decade, but with a 48-39 record that has them currently in a Wild Card spot, they look to be a lot more than just a diversion to help local sports fans survive the NFL offseason.

So how have the Mariners done it? How after yet another 90-loss season are they doing enough to be the topic of midseason features in national publications like Sports Illustrated and USA Today? There are plenty of explanations for this turnaround, but here are, in no particular order, five reasons the Mariners have captured our attention at midseason:

1. Lloyd McClendon

The Mariners’ skipper is getting midseason buzz as an American League Manager of the Year candidate, and for good reason. From the way he sticks up for his player, to his no-nonsense attitude, to his ability to push the right buttons putting together makeshift lineups with what he admits is a BB gun offense, McClendon has been a big part of Seattle’s first-half success.

“I think Lloyd’s done a tremendous job holding this group together,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “I’ve been very, very pleased with how he’s maintained an even keel.”

And maintaining an even-keel is not easy task with a team that is good enough to rattle off 11 wins in 14 games, which the M’s have done to get to a season-high nine games over .500, but offensively challenged enough to have losing streaks of eight, five and five games in the first few months of the season. McClendon has said from the very beginning that he wants his team to take on his personality and fear no one, and through the ups and downs, he has gotten the Mainers to do just that.

Just ask Brad Miller, Saturday’s extra-innings hero, who was hitting .151 at one point in May, but who has turned things around thanks in large part, he says, because of McClendon.

“To me the biggest thing was his trust in me and his faith in me,” Miller said last month. “The different things he’s said to me over the season that I’ve taken to heart has helped put me where I am right now, no question.”

2. Felix and friends

Felix Hernandez, fresh off an American League Pitcher of the Month award, might be enjoying the best season of his career, which is great for the Mariners, and terrible news for the rest of the league. Yet as dominant as Hernandez has been, one good or even great starter isn’t enough in this game, which is why a big concern coming into this season was what the Mariners would be able to put together behind Hernandez and fellow All-Star Hisashi Iwakuma.

James Paxton looked like a great option for a No. 3 starter as he dominated early in the year, but has been sidelined most of the season with a lat injury. Highly regarded Taijuan Walker is just now getting back from a shoulder injury. But despite those injuries, and Iwakuma missing the start of the season, the Mariners’ rotation has been a strength thanks to not just the All-Stars leading the rotation, but also the surprise seasons being enjoyed by Chris Young and Roenis Elias (more on them later).

With Walker back, and Paxton also expected to return at some point, things should only get better for a rotation that already has a 3.56 earned run average, which ranks second in the American League.

3. The bullpen

Fernando Rodney seemed like a somewhat questionable signing in the offseason, considering how he fell off a bit in 2013 after being an All-Star the year before. Yet the Mariners’ new closer has been lights out this season, picking up 25 saves in 27 chances. But what has really stood out hasn’t just been Rodney, but rather the entire bullpen, which came into Saturday’s game with an A.L.-best 2.58 ERA and it added six more scoreless innings in the 14-inning victory.

4. Robinson Cano

The Mariners spent big — maybe too big in the eyes of some — to bring the former New York Yankees star to Seattle. But whether or not you think Cano is worth $24 million a year, he has had a big impact on his new team. Cano has certainly gotten the job done with his bat — he’s hitting .323 with 51 RBI — but his impact goes far beyond his talents at the plate and in the field. Cano not only has produced, he has had a big impact as a leader in a young clubhouse. When rookie James Jones approached McClendon recently to ask his manager how he could get better, part of the manager’s advice was to tell the young center fielder to not let Cano out of his sight.

Perhaps even more telling are the quotes about Cano in that recent USA Today piece. McClendon said, “Cano is our electricity source. Each and every one of our guys plug into him on a daily basis.” While Hernandez says in the article that team chemistry is the best it has been since he joined the Mariners, and that, “Lloyd McClendon and Cano are the biggest reasons.”

5. Surprise key contributors

The Mariners came into this season with few players you could assume would succeed. Hernandez and Cano are proven stars, Iwakuma was one of the American League’s top pitchers last season, and you knew Kyle Seager would hit. Beyond that, however, the Mariners entered this season with a lot more questions than answers, which meant for them to turn things around, several players would have to step up and provide something.

While there hasn’t been a ton of that offensively, one exception has been rookie James Jones, who began the season in the minors and has been one of the Mariners’ biggest surprises. The Mariners had a .500 record when Jones made his first start on May 6 and have gone 33-24 since, and while it would be wrong to say Jones is the only reason for the improvement, he has certainly been a part of it, hitting .279 with 17 stolen bases as the Mariners’ leadoff or No. 2 hitter while also playing some very good defense in center field.

As mentioned earlier, the Mariners’ rotation has been strong one through four all year, which was hardly a given coming into the season. Chris Young, a journeyman starter who was contemplating retirement thanks to a shoulder injury that actually turned out to be a nerve issue, has been “a godsend for this rotation,” as McClendon put it. After signing with the Mariners just before the start of the season, Young has posted an 8-4 record with a 3.11 ERA. Rookie Roenis Elias fell to 7-7 after a rough outing Friday that raised his ERA to 4.19, but despite that loss he has been better than anyone could have expected from a pitcher making the leap from Double-A to the big leagues.

The Mariners can still get better, particularly on offense, but for once they’ll go into the trade deadline later this month as a team with every reason to address those needs, perhaps by adding a bat or two, rather than as a team going through yet another summer of irrelevance.

Herald Writer John Boyle:

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