SEATTLE — What's the secret to the Seattle Mariners turning the corner after the All-Star break and putting it all together to make the playoffs for the first time since 2001?
"We just need to play better," second-year manager Scott Servais says.
Sounds simple enough.
The Mariners head into the second half of the season with a 43-47 record, in fourth place in the American League West Division, 17 1/2 games behind division leader Houston.
"Where we're at right now, we should be playing better," Servais says. "How many wins are we going to get this year? I don't know. I certainly hope we finish with more than we had last year."
That's going to take a little doing. Seattle was 86-76 last season, nine games behind AL West champion Texas and in second place, two games ahead of Houston and a game out of the AL's second wild-card berth.
The Astros (60-29) are running away with the division title this season, and the Mariners — who were expected to take a step forward from a year ago — are among a bundle of teams in contention for the league's wild-card berths. Seattle is four games behind Tampa Bay (47-43) for the second wild-card spot, but also trails Minnesota (45-43), Kansas City (44-43), the L.A. Angels (45-47) and Texas (43-45) and is in a virtual tie with Baltimore (42-46).
"We have almost half a season left," Seattle catcher Mike Zunino says. "We know if we get a couple of hot stretches, we'll be in a good spot."
The Mariners have been nothing if not inconsistent.
"We've been streaky," says Scott Brosius, the former Linfield coach now serving as an assistant coach on Servais' staff. "Win a few, then lose a few. It's been frustrating."
The M's started the season 2-8, then won nine of the next 14. They won four in a row to get to 17-17, but soon went into a stretch where they lost seven of eight to fall to 21-29. They followed that with a 9-1 tear that got them to 30-30, followed by a six-game win streak to climb to a season-best two games over .500 at 39-37.
Soon after, Seattle suffered through a 2-9 streak, losing eight in a row at home, a puzzling scenario in that the M's were finally healthy, at least with position players.
Then again, after losing four starters from their five-man pitching rotation due to injuries at some point in the first half, perhaps they're fortunate to still be in the conversation.
"Your record is what you are," Servais says. "I think we're a better team than that based on where we came from in terms of facing the challenges we had with our pitching staff. We persevered very well through that time.
"We haven't played great at home lately. We were in such a good groove at home early, playing with a lot of confidence. We have to get back to that."
The Mariners averaged 2.3 runs in their first six losses of their recent home streak. Even so, they are tied for fourth in the AL in batting average (.263) and fifth in on-base percentage (.333) and runs scored (427), though they're only tied for 11th in home runs (100).
Six Seattle regulars are hitting better than .270, and that's not including Zunino (.234), who belted 10 home runs and had 31 RBIs in the month of June alone. Zunino became the fifth player in Mariner history with 10 homers and 30 RBIs in a month, joining Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Alex Rodriguez and Jay Buhner.
Rookie left fielder Ben Gamel, who is sixth in the AL in batting average (.323), also enjoyed a blistering June, with 40 hits and a .393 average. Veterans Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz, both headed for Tuesday's All-Star Game, each have 17 homers, and Cruz is third in the league in RBIs (70). The M's have a gem at shortstop in Jean Segura, acquired in a trade with Arizona before the season. Segura is only an average defender but is hitting .349, which would lead the AL if he were not a few plate appearances shy of qualifying. Segura has missed 30 games due to injury.
Seattle could use Mitch Haniger to return to early-season form. The rookie right fielder was hitting .342 and leading the league in runs scored and ranking second in on-base percentage when he went on the disabled list on April 25 with a strained oblique muscle. Since his return on June 11, he has hit .222 to fall to .273 for the season.
"Mitch was unbelievable the first month," Servais says. "He's an inexperienced player at this level. There are going to be some ups and downs. We've seen how good it can be. I have a lot of confidence in him. He prepares very well. I think he's going to be fine."
The Mariners have gone through spans where offense is lacking, but pitching has been the bigger problem. Seattle ranks 11th in the AL in ERA (4.61), which makes some sense when you figure that of the five pitchers who began the season in the rotation, only Ariel Miranda made it through the first half-season unscathed. Felix Hernandez (shoulder) missed 10 starts and James Paxton (forearm) missed five. Hirashi Iwakuma (shoulder) has been on the disabled list since May 17 and isn't to return any time soon. Drew Smyly (elbow) is having surgery and is done for the year.
Eight Seattle pitchers have been placed on the DL this season, including four relievers.
"I've never seen anything like it," says Mel Stottlemyre Jr., in his second season as Seattle's pitching coach. "There are times you just throw your hands up and shake your head. I've seen us lose three guys in one game. What looks like a really good rotation out of spring training is not the case now.
"But we're still in the wild-card hunt. We've had to mesh things together and try to hold on."
Former big-league pitcher Bill Krueger, now a Mariners TV studio analyst, says the club needs Hernandez and Paxton to step up at the top of the rotation. Hernandez allowed two hits over six innings, walking three with eight strikeouts, a 4-0 win over Oakland Sunday at Safeco Field.
"They need Felix to pitch well and anchor the rotation along with Paxton," Krueger says."They have a scary lineup that can beat you in a lot of ways. They can score runs. If they can get Hernandez and Paxton to be what they can be, the team can make a real run."
Hernandez, 31, was one of baseball's most dominant pitchers from 2009-15. Now in his 13th big-league season, it's clear he no longer is what he once was.
"At some point, your velocity is going to be on a decline," Stottlemyre says. "That doesn't mean they can't have greatness. Felix has to do it a little differently. He can't go in and just wipe guys out anymore. He has to make pitches. He has to get in good counts. He has to be able to execute. He has to cut down on the walks.
"In the past, he could walk a couple of guys and wipe three guys out and get out of an inning. It's different now. He has to execute his stuff. The days of him throwing 93 to 98 with his fastball are over. He has to pitch. But he can still be great, being 90 to 93. He just has to execute his stuff and be in good spots."
Servais thinks a rotation that includes Hernandez, Paxton, Miranda and rookie Andrew Moore out of Oregon State can get it done.
"Our starting pitching is good enough," the Seattle manager says. "I really believe that. It's more than enough, but the offense is going to have to help us win more games.
"Offensively, the games I've liked is when we take pitchers deep into counts. Seven, eight, nine-pitch counts to stretch guys out. Grinding to get your pitch. Staying alive. Sticking with your approach. Trusting you'll get your pitch. and trusting that guy behind you. I'd like to see more of that. We haven't done that as well lately."