The Bronx via Toledo

The Mariners struggle against the minor-league-caliber Tigers, then dominate in the series opener against the Yankees.

Making George Steinbrenner seethe with envy, for a generation of Seattle baseball fans, has been a terrific consolation prize, like always taking second place in a contest in which the winner gets to be in a real-life sports-celeb snowball fight with, say, Roger Clemens.

If Yankee owner Steinbrenner hates it, that is, we love it.

George hated it Tuesday night while his team was losing 6-0 to the Mariners. He wasnt necessarily chewing nails because Clemens, a modern nonpareil right-hander he happens to own just now, did not get his 298th career win. It was because Steinbrenner just wishes and wishes he had Gil Meche.

Well, he doesnt. Nor does he have Ichiro or any of the other Ms hes coveted (Griffey, A-Rod, etc.). Better than the win itself, which left the Ms at 17-9 and not too sure they wouldnt sweep the Yankees during the six games that end at Safeco next week, was the realization that the Bronx Behemoths can be had.

Meches pitching performanceit suffices to note that he hasnt given up a run for 23-plus inningscame precisely when the Ms had been tiptoeing around the base paths as though they were afraid they might awaken sleeping midgets from Cleveland and Detroit. Through the first 25 games (nearly a sixth of the season, that is), the offense had looked like position players were worried theyd have to serve a time-out for hitting.

Indeed, a month ago, if somebody had guaranteed that by now the Seattle Mariners team batting average would match Ichiros, many of us would have imagined the Ms to be the greatest franchise since the 27 Yankees.

Alas, only the first part was true Sunday after Seattle, by a whole run, had trounced the Toledo Mud Hens masquerading as the Detroit Tigers.

So during the ritual postgame interview, I asked skipper Bob Melvin whether he was at all concerned that the team batting average isnt somewhat above the .250 range. I fear I interrupted a flow of questions pertaining to what Melvin hailed as the sensational outing of Freddy Fly, Fly Away Garcia. The team ace (if you dont count Meche, Jamie Moyer, Joel Pineiro, or Ryan Franklin) was said by his mentor to have shown great poise and pacing after giving up solo dingers to members of a 3-20 team. By pacing, Melvin said he meant that, after pitching baseballs that wound up well beyond Ichiros reach, Garcia hadnt steamed, kicked, and cursed as though it had been some parallel-universe Freddy Garcia who had given up the long balls.

My impolitic query about the team batting average went over about as well as if Id asked Melvin when he plans to resign.

Id like to be hitting .350 as a team, he said with admirable sarcasm. But look at the bright side.

That would be the side with the 16-9 record (17-9 after Tuesdays win in New York). Then there was the unbright side: six of the next nine games against the 03 Yankees, possibly better than the 27 vintage. And there was that team batting average: .257, same as Ichiros that day.

Were gonna get hot, Melvin promised, though he didnt say when.

Would it be Tuesday at Yankee Stadium against Clemens and a team hitting .298? Who would have guessed? It sure hadnt happened against a Detroit lineup that makes Tampa Bays look like a dream team. After dispatching a rebuilding Cleveland contingent (and needing ninth-inning heroics to close the April 22 opener), Seattle looked poised to produce offense with a 6-zip lead early in Fridays debut against Detroit. It would be nine more innings and a day later before the Ms would manage a run against pitchers who wouldnt make the Tacoma Rainiers.

What, then, is with the 17-9 start? Theres been a little luck, maybe, and Meche, and a bullpen that doesnt cave very often. The Ms are 6-1 in one-run decisions. Theyve also had the benefit of playing nine straight against sub-.500 clubs.

But well-accomplished hitters seldom come to the plate consecutively. Ichiros woes have been analyzed to a point of distraction. Some explain the one-for-four average as a reflection of the defensive fixes of opponents tired of seeing Ichiro chump them for cheap base hits (his bunt single Tuesday in New York, for example). Others insist that opposing pitchers have figured out the right-fielders weakness for swinging when its high and tight. My own take is that within a month hell be comfortably above .300, because hell adjust himself out of the reverse-C swing that almost guarantees slicing pop-ups to the left side. He should be the least of anybodys worries.

Same with Randy Winn and Bret Boone, who should soon start demonstrating the benefit of bunching them in the lineup. But the four spot is a sore spot, mainly because, as we see, neither Edgar Martinez nor John Olerud can run much faster than most people can bunny hop. After them, aside from some pop from Carlos Guillen and Dan Wilson, youve got guys flailing at the plate as though theyre trying to get traded to Detroit. It was fun once, I suppose, in a perverse sense, to make sport of poor Jeff Cirillo. Common decency, however, keeps all but a few from even muttering aloud the third basemans latest batting-average decline. Ill only cite it by noting that, if hed gotten just four more hits so far this season, Cirillo would be at .200: lofty compared with the disappointing pinch-hit tandem of John Mabry and Greg Colbrunn (5 for 35 between them).

But that 17-9 mark still stands. And, speaking of stands, last week I hadnt seen so many vacant midweek third-deck seats at Safeco since the darkest years of the George Argyros ownership. Weeknight crowds were in the mid-20,000 range. Team prexy Chuck Armstrong accurately predicted when I pulled him aside the night of the Cleveland opener that the 25,231 paid would prove to be the nadir of the teams attendance counts. With the Yankees coming to town next week, sellouts ought to jack the season average above its present 33,000.

This will be especially true if the Ms can start slapping hits and winning some laughers, like the opener against the Yankees. Gonna happen, Melvin said, and it seemed to Tuesday, with 13 hits and three long balls in New York. Imagine George Steinbrenners slow burn seeing an inferior hitting team dominate the Yankees a fortnight before the Ms get six more against Cleveland and Toledo.

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