By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — Lloyd McClendon was surprised by what he discovered not long after taking over as the manager of the Seattle Mariners.
It wasn’t that McClendon didn’t know what he was getting into when he took over a team that hasn’t been to the postseason since 2001. He knew the challenges that the Mariners were facing, particularly offensively, but what caught McClendon off guard was the negativity surrounding his team.
Fans, and yes, us media hacks, had grown cynical watching 90-loss seasons pile up one after another. But McClendon, being new to the team and the area, wasn’t expecting quite so much pessimism about his new club.
“When I got here, a lot of negativity was in this room,” McClendon said referring to the media covering the team. “I’m not trying to bash anybody, but my god, I’ve never seen anything like it. The Mariners were the worst thing that ever (expletive) lived when I got here. I couldn’t believe it. And I think people are starting to believe in us a little bit. The walks downtown are little bit more pleasant now.
“I was probably more shocked that anything. Listen, I get it, I’ve been there, done that when I was in Pittsburgh and the organization struggled. But coming in, I was on the outside looking in, so I didn’t know. I was a little shocked, a little taken aback.”
So in the spirit of not angering McClendon — if you’ve ever had McClendon stare you down following a question he didn’t like, you understand — we’ll keep it positive despite the Mariners losing 4-1 to the Oakland Athletics on Sunday.
Sure the Mariners lost their final game heading into the All-Star break. And if I were the glass-half-empty type, I’d probably point out that the Mariners have been held to two runs or fewer four times in the last six games, causing them to slip a bit from their season high-water mark of nine games over .500. But instead, because we’re taking McClendon’s advice of taking a day off from cynicism, let’s consider what the Mariners have accomplished before the All-Star break this season. Yes the M’s lost four of their last six. Bbut they did just win a series against Oakland, which owns baseball’s best record. And their 51-44 record is still better than just about anyone could have reasonably expected heading into the year.
“It was a good series for us, there’s no question about that,” McClendon said. “We picked up a game in the standings, our guys finished the first half pretty strong, so I was very pleased with that, but it’s over now. We rest four days and get ready to play Anaheim.”
If the season ended today, the Mariners would own the American League’s second Wild Card berth, a rather huge accomplishment for a team that inspired a level of negativity that “shocked” McClendon before the season. The Mariners’ win Saturday was their 51st of the season, coming on July 12. Last season win No. 51 for Seattle came on Aug. 3.
“We’ve played good baseball. I still think our best baseball is ahead of us,” said Chris Young, who was dominant Sunday through four innings before the A’s got to him for three runs in the fifth and sixth innings. “There’s room for improvement. I think we can all get a little better, and if we do so I feel like we’ll be where we want to be at the end of the season. We’re pleased with where we are, but we’re not satisfied. We’ll keep working, and hopefully the second half will be even better than the first.”
And it’s not as if the Mariners have gotten to this point because everything possible has gone right for them. Two pitchers they were expecting to be in the rotation, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, have missed most of the season with injuries. And while Logan Morrison has started to pick things up of late, he and Corey Hart, two offseason acquisitions the Mariners hoped would improve a lineup that looked to be too Robinson Cano dependant, have not had a big impact thanks to injuries and a lack of production.
There have been other injuries, and an absurd amount of lineup juggling as McClendon tries to milk all he can out of his “BB gun” offense, yet warts and all, the Mariners have every chance to be in the thick of the playoff chase this fall.
“I said this coming out of spring training, I didn’t know what kind of a club I had, and I didn’t think I would know until we were 50, 60 games into the season,” McClendon said. “… I thought our pitching was going to be pretty good, I didn’t know about our offense — I still don’t know about our offense — but I know our pitching’s pretty darn good, our bullpen’s better than I thought it would be. I like where we are.”
The Mariners are in a pretty good place, as McClendon notes, largely because of their pitching. And McClendon is rightly receiving a lot of praise for the job he’s done, but some credit also needs to go to oft-maligned general manager Jack Zduriencik. Zduriencik has taken a lot of criticism, deservedly so, for Seattle’s past struggles, but this week’s All-Star game also shows that Zduriencik has made some good moves too.
Seattle will have four All-Stars in Minneapolis: second baseman Cano, Seattle’s big offseason acquisition; pitcher Felix Hernandez, who the Mariners signed to a big contract extension after the 2012 season; third baseman Kyle Seager, Zduriencik’s first draft pick to earn All-Star honors; and closer Fernando Rodney, an underrated offseason signing.
In addition to those four All-Stars, the Mariners have gotten big first-half contributions from some unexpected places. Sunday’s starter Young, who is coming back from a career-threatening surgery and was signed just before the start of the season, now has an 8-6 record with a 3.15 ERA. Center fielder James Jones, arguably the Mariners third-best position player behind Cano and Seager, began the season in Class AAA Tacoma but has since become the spark at the top of Seattle’s lineup.
“We feel good with the way we’re playing … you can’t complain about this first half,” said Cano, who goes into the break with a .334 average. “We’ve got to be happy about ourselves and where we are right now, then take these few days to forget about baseball, refresh our minds and get ready for Friday.
“We should be proud of ourselves in this first half.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.