Busting Out in June

At midseason in a bad division, the .500 Mariners could be contenders.

This happens in Seattle once in a while. Well, it happens twice in a while, with the "while" lasting three decades. The 1977–78 Sonics start the season at 5-17 and wind up seven points short of the NBA championship. The 2005–06 Seahawks lose their season opener and come within 11 points of winning the Super Bowl. If it's happening now for the Seattle Mariners and the numerical trend continues, the M's will play the seventh game of the 2006 World Series, losing by just 15 runs.

Since 2003, local baseball fans have welcomed the summer months with the joy reserved for a certain bedding retailer's "Christmas in July" TV commercials. This year is different. The team's astonishing (and not widely predicted) turnaround started a few hours before the first of June, when the M's ambushed the Texas Rangers, putting up a season-high 14 runs. The once bumbling club then commenced June with eight wins in 10 tries and would greet July with its first month's winning record since September 2003. The M's were 23-33 when June dawned. After the Thursday, June 29, come-from-behind 3-2 win against Arizona, they were 41-39 upon arrival at Safeco Field for Friday's Colorado game, June 30. The Rockies opener was the season's midpoint and the start of an eight-game home stand leading to the All-Star Game break. The M's lost that one and another on Sunday, July 2, but the team hit well through the weekend, and entering a series against Anaheim, the Mariners were one game over .500 and one game behind first-place Oakland.

Let's qualify this excitement. The M's are threatening to take the lead in a division that promises to finish the season with each of the four clubs at 81-81. The necessary American League West playoffs wouldn't even be over until after Thanksgiving, but we'll let Commish Bud Selig worry about that.

The mediocrity of the AL West, though, doesn't diminish what the club has accomplished. Nor is it much of a secret as to the reason for the M's sudden liveliness. The game results have been better simply because most position players and pitchers have improved—some of them markedly—since spring training. All at once. A midseason report card:

Ichiro: He's on pace to break the hits-per-season mark—you know, that "unbreakable record" he established two years ago. He makes an error about as often as the Bush administration admits to one. He homered twice over the weekend against the Rockies. A+

Raul Ibanez: One of the few M's who hasn't gotten better; he's just stayed good. B+

Jose Lopez: The other of the team's Killer Zees, he murders the ball and grounders die near him at second base. B+

Kenji Johjima: His clutch hitting reminds old-timers of Yogi Berra, the bonus being that Japan's greatest catcher is easier to understand than Yogi. Joh would get an A if his defense and arm were better. B+

Yuniesky Betancourt: The other half of the double-play combo is the best surprise because he seems to be a hitter capable of .300, to go with his golden (potentially platinum) glove work. B+

Adrian Beltre: His steady improvement at the plate the past few weeks is becoming the most welcome story of the baseball season. C+ (and rising)

Jeremy Reed/Richie Sexson: Both boast great defense; if they improve at the plate, then seriously think about saving for playoff tickets. C-

Carl Everett: A DH has to hit better than .240-something. C- Try Willie Bloomquist (B) and/or Mike Morse (B) or Roberto Petagine (Incomplete) at DH and save Everett for pinch-hitting.

Pitchers get pass/fail grades so far, with the only borderline cases being Eddie "This One's Gone!" Guardado and Joel "Piñata" Pineiro. Happy surprises who were on display again June 29: Gil Meche and J.J. Putz.

As for management, the average fan doesn't rant about dumping manager Mike Hargrove anymore but probably can't detect any changes in coaching. "Patience" is still the operative word among coaches. Maybe it will pay off in late October.


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