Peter Gammons: Key adjustments propelling Mariners’ surge

austin jackson chris denorfia
(Chris Denorfia and Austin Jackson Friday night at Fenway Park.) 

It was one thing to walk into Fenway Park and score five runs off Koji Uehara in the ninth inning to beat the Red Sox 5-3.

It is another to think about where that puts the Mariners: in the second wild card spot with Oakland, a half game in front of the Tigers, 3 ½ games in front of the Yankees; a +100 run differential which is the second best in all baseball; a 43-30 record since May 28. “This is a lot better team than people realize,” says third baseman Kyle Seager. “We really believe we can win.”

Manager Lloyd McClendon, who has bonded this team, cites Seager as one of his major reasons for the incline. “He is on one of the most underrated players in the game,” says McClendon. “Defensively he’s as good as anyone.” FanGraphs may put Seager notches below Josh Donaldson defensively, but rates them tied atop all major league third basemen.

There is no question that the Mariners pitching is the single biggest reason they are where they are, even after coming back in a game in which Felix Hernandez, gasp, allowed three runs (all on a Yoenis Cespedes home run). They lead the league with a 2.93 staff earned run average. “The mindset is ‘score four runs and we can win’,” says Brad Miller. King Felix, Hisashi Iwakuma and Chris Young right now may be the best Big Three in the league; talk about a contrast in styles…

And while New Yorkers note that Robinson Cano is 3 ½ games closer to the post-season than the Yankees, McClendon, the coaches and players note two major adjustments for their surge:

  1. The addition of Kendrys Morales, Austin Jackson, Chris Denorfia and Chris Taylor. “We were very lefthanded,” says McClendon. “Putting those four righthanded bats in there has made a big difference, especially matching up against bullpens. We have a lot more depth, and we can go right-versus-left when needed.”
  2. The bullpen. Last year, the Seattle bullpen had a 60% save percentage, this year they’re 50 for 60 with a 2.43 ERA. Deep, a lot of looks, Fernando Rodney and the irrepressible Danny Farquhar, who throughout his career has thrown from seven different arm angles, including submarine, and now throws 97…not to mention lays claim to being the best power shagger in the game, as much as McClendon tries to get him off the field.

Being back at Fenway reminds McClendon of being there last October in Game Two of the ALCS as Jim Leyland’s coach. Eighth inning, 5-1 Tigers, Joaquin Benoit in to pitch to David Ortiz with the bases loaded.

“He was supposed to pitch around him,” says McClendon. “He was told just throw him fastballs down and out of the zone and don’t worry if you walk him (like Bobby Cox ordering Doyle Alexander to walk George Brett intentionally with the bases loaded in the 1995 ALCS third game). But Benoit throws a changeup.” Series changed, bullpen policeman has his own bobblehead.

The current Tigers bullpen allowed 14 runs in 6 2/3 innings last night against the Twins and has the highest opponents’ OPS in the majors. These Mariners have the lowest.