By Larry LaRue The News Tribune
SEATTLE — The end of a baseball season can show how close one came to the goals set back in spring training, and the Seattle Mariners are now 161 games deep into 2012.
On a fall-weather Tuesday at Safeco Field, Kyle Seager hit his 20th home run, Michael Saunders picked up a couple more doubles and some RBI and — oh, yes — the Mariners won their 74th game of the season by beating the Los Angeles Angels 6-1.
Hisashi Iwakuma and relievers Carter Capps and Tom Wilhelmsen stopped the Angels on eight hits, with Iwakuma running his season record to 9-5.
And with one game left to play, the wins and losses add up to this: the Mariners are today a week’s worth of wins better than their 2012 version.
That may not be the definitive yard stick.
For one thing, a day after they’d been eliminated from postseason contention, the bottom third of the Angels lineup looked like a spring training game.
And for a night, the Angels played as if it were.
Three errors, a couple more mistakes and Los Angeles watched a 1-0 first inning deficit grow and grow — and saw Seattle put together a strong effort.
With 14,353 fans on hand, some no doubt day-dreaming about Safeco Field’s soon-to-be-moved-in fences, the Mariners looked like a team that didn’t need much help scoring runs.
Seager’s first-inning home run wasn’t just a milestone — he became the first Seattle player with at least 20 home runs since 2009 — it was moon shot to right field.
Iwakuma pitched as if a 1-0 lead was all he needed.
It was, but the Mariners got him more, anyway.
With Angels right-hander Dan Haren pitching well into the fourth inning, John Jaso’s one-out sharp ground ball rolled right through second baseman Howie Kendrick for an error.
Justin Smoak, the first baseman hitting .400 since mid-September, lined a double down the left field line, getting Jaso to third base.
Michael Saunders doubled both runners home. A .196 career hitter when spring training began, Saunders is now batting .249 with 19 home runs and 57 RBI in 2012.
It was the kind of game that gives manager Eric Wedge faith that this team is much-improved from a year ago, and perhaps more so than that win-loss record shows.
“Offense has been an issue for us all year, and our young hitters have been inconsistent,” Wedge said. “But you’re seeing at-bats this season night-and-day better than you saw a year ago.
“We need to improve with runners in scoring position, with two outs, but those are always the last thing to come for young hitters. We swing the bats aggressively, we’re taking the right pitches and we’re ready for the fastball when it comes.”
The numbers posted by Seattle hitters aren’t likely to move fans starved for a winning team — Jaso’s .275 batting average was the team high when the night began.
Still, second-year third baseman Seager is batting .258 with 20 home runs and 85 RBI.
Smoak, who was hitting .189 when he returned from Tacoma last month, is now batting .217 with 19 home runs and 51 RBI in 131 games.
Rookie Jesus Montero has 59 RBI, Dustin Ackley and Jaso 50 each.
What the Mariners have now are pieces that they will try to keep on a team they want to add to.
In the course of the season, they’ve discovered a closer in Wilhelmsen, valuable setup men in the hard-throwing Capps and Stephen Pryor.
Erasmo Ramirez has proven himself capable of starting or relieving, rookie Lucas Luetge has been the left-handed specialist Seattle had hoped George Sherrill would be for them.
And Blake Beavan, their No. 5 starter, has 10 wins with the chance for an 11th in today’s season finale. If their biggest problem next season is a fifth starter with 10 wins, the Mariners might be very good, indeed.
That doesn’t mean Seattle is ready to contend in what will be a five-team American League West team next season, when Houston is added.
General manager Jack Zduriencik and Wedge are agreed on needs: at least one middle-of-the-lineup bat,, a proven run producer. They need Iwakuma — or someone like him — back in 2013.
“These guys haven’t given against anyone, they haven’t back down against anyone, and that experience is going to mean we’ll win a lot more of these games next year,” Wedge said.