Getting ahead early could solve woes
Mariners outscored by 72 runs in first three innings last season
PEORIA, Ariz. -- The Mariners are still uncertain about who will fill the closer role this season, but the first three innings might be even more important.Scoring early could go a long way toward removing some of the stress that comes from playing from behind so darn often -- something that happened way too frequently a year ago. The Mariners were outscored, 296-224, in the first three innings last season. "I think getting an early lead is big," veteran left-hander Jarrod Washburn said, "and not just for the starting pitcher. When the offense breaks through early in the game, it gives the hitters confidence, it takes a little of pressure off of them. "It takes some of the pressure off your starting pitcher, your defense and your offense." It should also be pointed out that every American League team that reached the postseason last season scored more runs in the first three innings than their opponents, ranging in disparity from the Red Sox (303-240) to the Rays (245-241). "It takes a little bit of the edge off your entire team," Washburn said. "And the more relaxed you are, the easier it is to play."
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
Pitching, defense, timely hitting and health are equally important to a team that is coming off a 101-loss season. There's a new general manager, new manager, an all-new coaching staff and enough new players to help turn things around.For starters, the Mariners have a five-man rotation that should prosper with early-game run support. Ace right-hander Felix Hernandez, who won a rotation-high nine games last season, had a 3.45 ERA, the eighth best in the AL; a 2.72 ERA in his 11 no-decisions; and ranked second among AL starters in lowest run support, receiving two or fewer runs in 17 of his 31 starts. Left-hander Erik Bedard is one of the top lefties in the Major Leagues when he can maintain an every-fifth-day routine. He surrendered one or fewer runs in eight of his 15 starts during an injury-plagued 2008 season and since '06 is one of just nine MLB pitchers with 10 or more double-digit strikeout games. Right-hander Carlos Silva was a double-digit winner in back-to-back seasons with the Twins before signing with Seattle prior to last season, and he became known as an innings-eater, accumulating 20 quality starts in '07. The less said about Silva's '08 season, the better. He is, however, capable of bouncing back in a big way. Washburn has been the Mariners' poster child for lack of run support since his arrival more than three years ago. His 5-14 record last season was largely the result of poor run support. He finished second to Hernandez in quality starts (19-14) and surrendered two or fewer runs in 12 starts, winning just three of them. He is 76-14 during his career when surrendering two or fewer runs, which looks even more impressive when you consider that he's made 272 big league starts. Left-hander Ryan Rowland-Smith surrendered three or fewer runs in 10 of his 12 late-season starts. Get the picture? Score early and see how far the starters can take the game. Now comes the tough part. Just how do the Mariners go about getting early leads? Since the first day of Spring Training, manager Don Wakamatsu has talked about a "belief system" built around talent, confidence and accountability. Wakamatsu and his coaching staff embrace the team-first concept, encouraging every player to sacrifice personal statistics by advancing a runner, using the bunt as a weapon even if you aren't known as a bunter and manufacturing runs. A runner on third base with fewer than two outs should score. Loading the bases with no one out should put the pressure on the pitcher, not the batter. Look for a pitch to drive and hit it hard. Little things, especially early in the game, become big things later. "What really gets to a pitcher, and the offensive guys too, is to have the bases loaded, nobody out and you don't score," Washburn said. "It's the same thing when a runner's on third with nobody out and he doesn't score. That seemed to happen a lot [last season]." Do the Mariners have the players that are capable and willing to play "small ball"? "I do think there is lot of talent on this team, a lot of physical ability," Wakamatsu said. "I think we are stronger in the outfield than we were last year. There is more speed and the veterans that we've added are going to provide leadership that wasn't here last year." Step right up, Mike Sweeney and Ken Griffey Jr. The clubhouse atmosphere this spring has been night-and-day different than a year ago. "You look around our clubhouse and you will see players from Venezuela over there, from Japan over there, the Dominicans over there and Americans over there," Wakamatsu said. "We are looking for Sweeney and Griffey Jr., along with Adrian [Beltre] to bring everyone together. "I believe in strong relationships and we talk about that [with the players]. I think a lot of guys in that room have come together and enjoyed each other's company. " When you don't see Sweeney and Griffey, you certainly hear them. "When you go to sleep at night, you still hear Junior and Sweeney," pitcher Brandon Morrow recently told The News Tribune. "You can hear them no matter what practice field you're on. You always hear them in the clubhouse and in the dugout. You always know where they are. It's awesome." Unlike a year ago, when the Mariners were considered to be the team most likely to unseat the Angels as the AL West champions, getting even one vote to win the division this season seems unlikely. But you can count on two things: If this team stays healthy, it won't lose 100 games, and will be a lot more fun to watch.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.