Mariners’ bullpen is foundation of team’s success

SEATTLE — There is no one single factor that explains the Seattle Mariners’ rise this year from perennial doormat to legitimate postseason contender as the calendar prepares to turn to September.

The mega-signing last December of All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano certainly reset the franchise and meshed well with the no-excuses attitude new manager Lloyd McClendon brought from Detroit.

Cano’s arrival and McClendon’s approach seemed to rejuvenate staff ace Felix Hernandez, who after two merely solid years, is putting together perhaps the finest season of his much-decorated career.

Many within the organization cite the heightened maturity and confidence of a mostly homegrown roster.

“We’re in a good spot right now,” said general manager Jack Zduriencik, who received a multi-year extension earlier this week. “I think, if you really look at this objectively, we put a plan in place. We didn’t deviate from it.”

Third baseman Kyle Seager emerged this year as an All-Star. Catcher Mike Zunino displays advanced catch-and-throw skills in addition to a power bat. Left fielder Dustin Ackley shows increased signs of realizing his potential.

And the infield’s defense spiked upward following the late July arrival of rookie shortstop Chris Taylor, who is also batting .325 since his promotion from Triple-A Tacoma.

“Nobody here is really panicking anymore,” Ackley said. “We all know what we’re capable of doing.”

Nowhere, though, are all elements of the Mariners’ turnaround better exemplified than in a reconfigured bullpen that is bidding to establish itself as the best American League unit in the designated hitter (post-1972) era.

“The only thing about our bullpen,” McClendon said, “if you really think about it, is we added two veterans in Joe Beimel and (Fernando) Rodney.

“Everybody else was able to be slotted into, probably, the proper roles — where they weren’t overexposed; they weren’t overused. As a result, they’ve been fantastic.

“Now, did I think they were going to be this good? No. This is historical-type stuff that we’re doing now. It’s been pretty special to watch.”

The Mariners’ relief corps leads the American League with a 2.37 ERA. No other club, through Wednesday, was closer than Cleveland’s 2.80. The Mariners also lead the AL in limiting opponents to a .213 batting average.

That 2.37 ERA also ranks second to the 1990 Oakland A’s among AL clubs for a full season in the DH era. Those A’s, headed by Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley, compiled a 2.35 mark.

(The 1981 Yankees, in a strike-shortened season, had a 2.26 ERA).

Rodney, at 37, has been everything the Mariners hoped for when they plucked him from the free-agent market on the eve of spring training with a two-year deal for $16 million.

His 2.19 ERA is the second-best of his 12-year career, and his 38 saves (in 41 chances) trail only Kansas City’s Greg Holland (40) among the league’s closers.

“It’s the confidence he has in his stuff,” Zunino said. “He can shrug stuff off, and go attack guys. He has the ability to strike guys out when he needs to. He just kicks it up to that next gear.”

Rodney’s arrival turned Danny Farquhar into a backup closer, and the closer whom Farquhar replaced, Tom Wilhelmsen, into a long reliever once the Mariners jettisoned Hector Noesi in early April.

Rookie Dominic Leone replaced Noesi on the roster and also ate middle innings, mostly in low-leverage situations, while Beimel combined with Charlie Furbush to furnish McClendon with two tough lefty elements.

The toughest outs often fall to right-hander Yoervis Medina, whose repertoire of hard stuff with movement makes him the first choice in the eighth inning of close games, particularly against the middle of the order.

“His slider has gotten better,” McClendon said. “He’s buckled some guys. Particularly right-handed hitters. And the sinker is just explosive. He gets better each and every time out.”

Medina’s hit and strikeouts are similar to what he posted last year as a rookie, but his walks are way down. McClendon says that’s due to the confidence that now coats the entire unit.

“A little mojo,” McClendon said. “A little better walk. Rodney and Beimel have a lot to do with that. That’s that x-factor (with veterans) that you can’t quantify with numbers.”

What had been a seven-man unit got a boost after the June conversion of struggling starter Brandon Maurer to the bullpen. Maurer has a 1.98 ERA in 28 relief appearances with 28 strikeouts in 28 innings.

“It’s just having confidence,” he said. “I didn’t have any confidence earlier. That’s the big upgrade in my game.”

Maurer’s emergence prompted the Mariners to roll with an eight-man bullpen — one more than normal — and enabled McClendon to avoid overtaxing anyone during high-use stretches.

“Our bullpen is our foundation,” McClendon said. “We’ve done everything we can to try to take care of them, and we’ll continue to do that.”

The bullpen depth sparkled last weekend when the Mariners swept three games in Boston with comeback victories after its starters lasted just 52/3 innings, 32/3 innings and 21/3 innings.

The bullpen shackled the Red Sox in each game in yielding just one run in 151/3 innings while accumulating two saves, three victories and four holds. A big key, as it has been all year, was shutdown innings in middle relief.

“Wilhelmsen has been the glue that’s held our bullpen together,” McClendon said. “Time and time again, he’s pitched three or three-and-a-third (innings) of shutdown baseball.”

It’s an often unglamorous role, particularly for a former closer, but Wilhelmsen is thriving in it with a 2.06 ERA in 70 innings over 47 appearances.

“That’s what makes Seattle so tough,” a scout from a rival club said. “Their rotation is good, but say you get one of them out of there. With other teams, you get a mop-up guy, and a three-run lead becomes a five-run lead.

“Here, you get Wilhelmsen or Maurer or that Leone kid, and they’re all throwing gas. Not just hard but nasty hard. And it only gets tougher in the later innings.”

Those in the group admit they feed off each other and take their cue from Rodney, who punctuates each save with a flamboyant arrow-shooting pantomime.

“Everyone is feeling real good,” Wilhelmsen said. “We’re strong. We’re healthy. We pick each other up and win ballgames. It’s been great.”

Great at a near-record pace.

“We have three or four closers,” Rodney said. “Tommy, Farquhar, Medina and me. We can all close the game. They can all throw three days in a row. That’s what makes it a tough bullpen.

“When you have a bullpen like that, you can go a long way and win a lot of games.”

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