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McClendon method: Let players play

by: COURTESY OF MEG WILLIAMS - Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon confers with players on the mound. McClendon attributes some of Seattles early-season success to regular 20-minute fielding sessions three hours before each game.SEATTLE — In the final tally, Lloyd McClendon’s success as Seattle’s manager will be determined by wins and losses.

Too many losses cost him his job after five seasons as manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates (2001-05). Plenty of wins — and a pair of World Series appearances as a coach for Jim Leyland with the Detroit Tigers (2006-13) — helped him land the job with the Mariners.

Seattle’s 7-5 record through Monday action bodes well for McClendon, but he knows it’s too small a sample size from which to draw conclusions.

“I don’t know how many wins we’re going to have this year,” McClendon said before Saturday’s 3-1 loss over Oakland at Safeco Field. “It’s nice to be off to a good start. It’s safe to say this team is better than it has been in the past. We’ll continue to get better as our pitching staff gets healthier. I think we’re going to be a better club than last year’s.”

Seattle went 71-91 in 2013, precipitating the resignation of manager Eric Wedge. The Mariners are expecting more after adding the $240 million man, second baseman Robinson Cano, along with outfielder Corey Hart and some help to an already strong pitching crew.

Much of the rotation is missing, with starters Hisasi Iwakuma, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker all rehabbing from injuries. Sometime in May, all are expected to rejoin the Mariners. If that happens, we’ll know

more about the job McClendon is doing.

McClendon is getting a near-unanimous thumbs-up from the players, who genuinely enjoy playing for the one-time utility man who spent most of his career with the Pirates.

“One of the best managers I’ve played for,” says Cano, who had Joe Torre and Joe Girardi as managers during his nine years with the Yankees. “He’s pretty cool. He talks with everybody. He lets you play. I love to play for him.”

“He communicates,” says Hart, a veteran outfielder who had spent his entire eight-year career with Milwaukee before coming to Seattle. “He’s very passionate about his club. He views us as his family. Everybody here sees that, and you want to fight for a guy like that. We love him.”

McClendon has made communication and defining roles a priority. His players say he is a straight shooter.

“He’s pretty open,” reliever Tom Wilhelmsen says. “Everyone knows his role. That’s comforting to know. He’s calm. He’s cool. There’s no B.S.”

Wedge was more old-school. He got along with most of the players but was less inclined to engage in conversation.

“Wedge was always very good to me,” third baseman Kyle Seager says. “I don’t have anything bad to say about him. But with Lloyd, it’s a whole different environment. He has a whole different attitude. You know what he expects from you, but at the same time, he’s approachable. You can talk to him about a lot of different things.

“You know what work you need to do. You know what he expects from you. At the same time, there’s a little bit of a looseness about him. You can talk about a range of issues. But when it’s time to get your work in, you know what time it is.”

Left fielder Dustin Ackley and rookie catcher Mike Zunino consider McClendon motivational.

“He’s kind of laid-back, but you see his passion out there,” Ackley says. “He takes a lot of mound visits. He goes out there to pump (the pitcher) up. When you have a manager like that who is fun to play for, it makes everything better.”

“He has guys to the point where they’ll run through walls for him,” Zunino says. “He has your back, and that quiet confidence. A manager like that — loose and willing to support you — is a guy you want to play for.”

McClendon, 55, suggests he has mellowed since his first managerial stint.

“Your past should prepare you for the future,” he says. “I think I’m a better manager now. I hope I’m better. I was a young guy in Pittsburgh, probably overzealous in a lot of situations. I’ve learned to stay out of the players’ way. Get them prepared, and once the game starts, let them play.

“One thing I learned from Jim: just enjoy the journey. It’s a tremendous opportunity for anybody to sit in this chair. I’m having fun with it. I have good players. I’m going to let them play.”

McClendon was hitting coach his last seven seasons with the Tigers, working with such players as Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez and Prince Fielder. McClendon learned some other parts of the game from Leyland. Three hours before each game, the Mariners go through a 20-minute fielding session.

“We have a nice little program going,” McClendon says. “We did it in Detroit. It was a formula for success. We call it our ‘4 o’clock hour,’ where guys are getting after it with infield and outfield play and working on different things. It started in spring training and will continue throughout the season. They come out and get the work they need to get in and do it right. Quantity is OK, but you look for quality work. It’s paying off.”

The Mariners are a hitting-challenged team again this season.

“One way we can close the gap is to catch the ball and run the bases,” McClendon says. “If we do that well, we have a little saying — nine innings, 27 outs. I just want us to do the things that winning teams do. That’s running, catching and throwing the baseball. Do it well every day. We’ve done a nice job with that.”

Hart likes the emphasis on preventing runs.

“Defense was a problem for (the Mariners) last year,” he says. “Our defense has been playing well. (The 4 o’clock hour) has a lot to do with it.

“He’s very adamant about playing well in all phases. We’re not always going to hit. We’re not always going to have a pitcher strike out 11 batters. It’s important to make as many defensive plays as we can.”

Whatever results in victories is what McClendon and the Mariners — who haven’t made the playoffs since 2001 — are looking for.

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