To say the Seattle Mariners’ 2008 season was forgettable is something of an understatement.
Their 61-101 record was the worst in the American League. They finished a whopping 39 games back of first-place Los Angeles and were outscored 671 to 811 on the year, the third-worst run differential in baseball.
But my, how quickly things can change.
At the time of writing, the Mariners were arguably the biggest surprise of the 2009 MLB campaign. At 42-39, the M’s were just 3.5 games out of first place in the AL West and right in the thick of the Wild Card chase.
Which begs the question – how the heck are the Mariners doing it?
A lot of the team’s recent success stems from rookie manager Don Wakamatsu. Known as a player’s coach who thrives on building confidence, Wakamatsu has dealt with a myriad of injuries and a reed-thin bench to somehow vault his club into playoff talk. That alone is a massive achievement, given many pundits didn’t figure Seattle would be much better than the 61-win club of a year ago.
Wakamatsu’s mentorship might explain why Seattle is getting inspired performances from several unheralded players. Oh sure, Ichiro Suzuki is hitting at his usual clip (.362 batting average), but how do you explain the rest? 1B Russell Branyan – a .237 career hitter – is hitting .293. Jose Lopez, who has never knocked in more than 89 runs, is on pace for 100-plus RBI. These types of contributions are important, given that Adrian Beltre, Yunieksy Betancourt and Endy Chavez – all starters – are currently on the disabled list.
Where Wakamatsu might get the most credit, though, is how he’s worked with a patchwork pitching staff. While Felix Hernandez is off to a great start (8-3, 2.62 ERA), the rest of Seattle’s pitchers have been hampered by (surprise!) injuries. Erik Bedard has only appeared in 11 contests and Jarrod Washburn only 15. So Wakamatsu has had to lean on his middle relief staff, which has been nothing short of outstanding. Mark Lowe has made 37 apperances with 10 holds and a 3.49 ERA. Sean White has made 31 appearances, recording nine holds with a solid 2.84 ERA. Those two have really paved the way for closer David Aardsma, who leads the club with 17 saves and a stingy 1.41 ERA.
The club has also shown a great amount of resiliency in the face of adversity. Despite the fact Wakamatsu has used 67 different starting lineups in 76 games, the Mariners have remained focused, relying on grit and hustle to compensate for a lack of star power. It might not get them into the playoffs, but it’s certainly a recipe for success.
A surprising success at that.