Punchless Mariners need a new skipper to guide the ship

Following a 2-4 homestand, the Mariners went on the road, beating Cleveland once then losing five straight, including a sweep in a three-game series against the New York Yankees.

The Yankees outscored the Mariners 19-4 in the series, highlighted by a closed-door tirade by M’s manager John McLaren after a 6-1 defeat Saturday. In that game, it took just 10 ninth-inning pitches to send the M’s back to the hotel.

As bad as that was, it may not have matched Friday’s nightmare, a 5-1 loss in which the Mariners booted four errors, after which McLaren locked himself in a room to avoid the media.

The Mariners are better than their record, which was 13-19 at the end of the weekend. Or they should be.

Blame injuries. Blame J.J. Putz’s rib or Erik Bedard’s hip. Blame Eric O’Flaherty’s head. Blame the hitters, who couldn’t figure out Mike Mussina, whose prime was six years ago. At this time, they seem incapable of putting together multi-hit innings.

Not even a fifth of the way through the season, McLaren has tried nearly everything. He shipped out Brad Wilkerson and Greg Norton in favor of former first-round draft choice Jeff Clement and outfielder Wladimir Balantien. He started Miguel Cairo at second.

McLaren and the coaching staff sat down at a Little Italy restaurant and scribbled various lineups on napkins.

Nothing worked.

The hitters aren’t hitting.

The closers aren’t closing.

The middle relievers aren’t stopping the bleeding.

The guys with the gloves aren’t using them.

All contribute to wasted, quality, seven-inning outings the starting pitchers are giving them. As good as the starting pitching has been, average hitting and average defense should be enough to win. The Mariners are getting neither.

They need a bigger jolt.

They need a change at manager.

You can make a reasonable argument that it’s not McLaren’s fault, that he can’t hit for Richie Sexson and can’t start double plays for Jose Lopez. McLaren is a player’s manager who next to never rips his guys in the media. He’s a good man and a good baseball man.

But McLaren set the standard before the season when he said that anything short of the playoffs would be a terrible disappointment to this group and now, the Mariners and the Rangers are the two worst teams in the American League.

We hear over and over that Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt are the two best young middle infielders in the game, but they still have times when they approach their jobs with undue negligence. It’s the manager’s job to correct it. He hasn’t.

He hasn’t because the players have stopped listening to him. The team needs a new voice.

In spring training, McLaren griped about the lack of the team’s situational hitting. Two months later, it’s not any better and may well be worse. That’s on the manager.

Many considered the M’s 88-win season in 2007 as a great breakthrough. But there’s a difference between winning when it counts and padding the record on a bunch of meaningless games in September. The Mariners stumbled when they could least afford to stumble. Are we in for a repeat in 2008?

It’s early May, but it’s no longer early in the season. Not for the Mariners. It’s their crunch time. Their deficit behind the Angels and Athletics is creeping toward double figures. If they don’t get it in gear — and get it in gear soon — this figures to be one of the franchise’s most galling seasons.

Maybe this week’s series against the pitching-poor Rangers turns it around.

More likely, the car is in need of a new driver.

Sports columnist John Sleeper: sleeper@heraldnet.com. To reach Sleeper’s blog, “Dangling Participles,” go to www.heraldnet.com/danglingparticiples.

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