Mariners’ McClendon shows why players ‘love playing for him’

SEATTLE — John Buck was ready to explode, ready to let first-base umpire Lance Barksdale have it, and as a result, ready to ruin Mike Zunino’s day off.

But before Buck could put an end to Zunino’s “spa day,” as Seattle’s backup catcher put it, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon was out of the dugout and on his way to a quick ejection.

McClendon’s heated protest didn’t change Barksdale’s call, a key decision in a 2-0 Tampa Bay victory, but his willingness to stick up for Buck, and as the catcher noted, to read the situation and understand someone, either player or manager, was going to exit the game early, was an important moment nonetheless.

“That’s the epitome of a player’s manager, because I was on my way,” Buck said. “He has a good feel for the game, and we wanted to keep Z on his spa day, if you will. Those heated moments, sometimes having a good manager who’s very aware of those situations, for him to jump up like he did … I should probably pay his fine.”

Or at least buy McClendon a new hat.

On a day when the Mariners struggled to get anything going offensively — they finished with just two hits, and only one off Rays starter Jack Odorizzi — Dustin Ackley gave the Mariners a little spark in the eighth with a one-out double. Buck then worked the count full, and after it looked like he had checked his swing on what would have been ball four, Barksdale ruled Buck had swung. Strike three, batter out, manager enraged.

Before Buck could plead his case, McClendon beat him to it, and after earning a very quick ejection — apparently Barksdale told McClendon not to come out of the dugout — McClendon tossed his hat into the infield dirt, then after retrieving it, McClendon flung the dusty cap into the crowd on his way back to the dugout.

“I took exception with — obviously we didn’t think he swung, but for the umpire to tell me, ‘Don’t come out here,’ that part I don’t get,” McClendon said.

As for the call itself, it appears McClendon and Buck were right to be upset, and in a game where hits and runs were as rare as an 80-degree spring day in Seattle — OK, bad example — it’s understandable if McClendon reacted in rather demonstrative fashion. Although after the game, the hatless Mariners skipper stopped short of ripping the call.

“You guys write what you saw,” he said. “You tell it, because if I tell it, I’ll get fined.”

In addition to providing a bit of entertainment in a game that was otherwise devoid of excitement, Lloyd’s ejection, as Buck noted, was an example of why the Mariners like playing for their new manager.

And it was far from the first occasion when McClendon has made a point of sticking up for his players in a public way. Most notably, McClendon had some very strong words for Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long during spring training after the Yankees hitting coach criticized Robinson Cano’s effort, or lack there of, while running out ground balls. McClendon has also, on several occasions, though few as dramatic as Wednesday’s outburst, been quick to get in an umpire’s ear when he thinks one of his players is being disrespected or just on the wrong end of a bad call.

“That’s one of the reasons we all love playing for him,” Buck said. “I was in starter mode, so I felt like I could get thrown out there. He ran out there and kind of wore one for me. That’s a player’s manager for sure.”

Yet a player’s manager is a somewhat misleading description for McClendon. Yes, he’ll stand up for his players, and he’ll give them room to work through some struggles, but he also isn’t afraid to make changes, or to give blunt assessments of his team or an individual when they are struggling, often by using some variation of a four-letter word that begins with the letter S.

But what McClendon doesn’t do, what makes him so ideal for this job, is overreact to those struggles. Even when he’s referring to a game or a series as being, um, stuff, he also has a firm grasp on the big picture. Through 40 games, roughly a quarter of the season, the Mariners have a 20-20 record. Not great, but hardly disappointing, especially when you factor in the pitching injuries.

The Mariners have alternated between looking great (what a start to the season!) to terrible (an eight-game losing streak?) to great again, and back to shaky after dropping two of three against the Rays this week. The next three-quarters of this season will tell us if the Mariners are good enough to contend, but what the first 40 games have shown is that McClendon has the right demeanor, the right combination of tough guy and level-headed to weather the ups and downs that will inevitably come with this season.

“Look, when you get one, two hits and you get shut out, nothing looks good, that’s just the way it is,” McClendon said. “We looked pretty darn good the other night when we scored (12) runs. You try not to over-analyze and blow things up. You have to continue to look at the big picture. Do we have shortcomings offensively? Of course we do, yeah. Do we have challenges? Yes, we do. Can we win? Yes, we can.”

McClendon has made a habit this year of joking about the sky falling when things are going bad. He knows how to keep a clubhouse, and a media session, loose, and as his ejection Wednesday showed, he’s quick to stand up for his players. Neither of those things will make a difference if the Mariners lack the talent to get over the hump in 2014, but both will help a young and so far inconsistent team handle this rollercoaster of a season.

They sky may not be falling, but from time to time, it’s a good thing when McClendon’s hat is.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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