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Pitching keeps Mariners in AL playoff hunt

SEATTLE -- Lloyd McClendon has been trotting out a different lineup almost nightly -- 59 in 65 games -- for the Seattle Mariners, but the first-year manager says it's not his master plan.

"I asked (Ken) Griffey, Edgar (Martinez) and (Jay) Buhner to come out of retirement, and they said no," McClendon quipped Wednesday night prior to the Mariners' 4-2 loss to the New York Yankees at Safeco Field. "Fact is, players don't play every day anymore. A lot of times it's about matchups, about facing right-handers and left-handers."

A lot of it with the Mariners is about injuries, too.

Corey Hart, Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders and Logan Morrison have all missed significant time with injuries, so McClendon's approach the putting together a lineup has been piecemeal, for sure.

And then, some of it is that the Mariners simply have a challenged offensive unit, at best. And McClendon is trying to find something -- anything -- that works.

Seattle is last in the American League in batting average (.238) and on-base percentage (.298), yet with a 34-31 record is only 5 1/2 games behind AL West leader Oakland.

"We're just scratching out runs any way we can," outfielder Dustin Ackley said. "We've been throwing out different lineups, and different guys are getting it done. One through nine, you have to produce, and that's what we've been doing."

Well, sometimes. As Seattle won eight of nine during a recent hot streak, with seven of the games on the road, all but one of the victories came down to the final two innings.

"It's about timely hits," catcher Mike Zunino said. "We've been able to do that so far."

But poor hitting usually catches up with a team during a 162-game regular season. As long-time Mariners broadcaster Bill Krueger puts it, "It's like four 15-handicappers playing a scramble. Three of the guys put it into a sand trap, the fourth guy puts it on the green and you're all right. But at some point, it falls apart."

It may be that the Mariners have to make a deal to acquire a veteran before the July 31 trade deadline. What does the manager think about that idea?

"I get what you're saying," McClendon said. "My job is to manage the players I'm given. I don't worry about trades. I don't worry about bats. I worry about the personnel I have and do the best with that."

So McClendon has mixed and matched, with second baseman Robinson Cano penciled in every night in the three-hole and everyone else put on call.

"We've had some shuffling around in the lineup," Zunino said. "Every night, we know we're going to have to piece runs together one way or another. We manufacture some and hope our pitching can keep us in it."

Ah yes, Seattle's pitching.

The Mariners are second in the AL in ERA (3.39) and third in opponents' batting average (.236). The bullpen is even better, ranking second in ERA (2.72) and third in OBA (.222). Closer Fernando Rodney, a 37-year-old veteran signed as a free agent, has a 2.19 ERA and is tied for the AL lead with 18 saves. Dominic Leone (1.35), Joe Beimel (1.86), Danny Farquhar (2.48), Tom Wilhelmsen (2.67) and Yoervis Medina (3.00) have shined, all making at least 20 relief appearances.

"They've been outstanding," McClendon said. "We have power arms down there. We feel good when we get a lead. We have a real good chance to win a game.

"But it's a combination of that and good starting pitching. The last 10 to 12 games, our starters have been pretty good, taking us deep into games which makes your bullpen even better."

Zunino agreed.

"When your starting pitching is going six or seven strong innings, and your bullpen only has to take one to three innings a night, it makes it a lot easier for them," the rookie catcher said. "Sometimes they get multiple days off in a row. The arms are fresh. You see the guys coming out of the bullpen with a lot of life in their stuff."

Felix Hernandez (8-1, 2.39) and Hisashi Iwakuma (4-3, 2.79) are top-line starters and veteran Chris Young (5-4, 3.68) and rookie Roenis Elias (5-4, 3.64) have been more than serviceable. Erasmo Ramirez (1-4, 5.97) has been lacking as a fifth starter, but left-hander James Paxton, who has been out since April 9 with a shoulder injury, is starting to throw again and might be ready by the All-Star break.

"Paxton is very good, a guy who throws strikes to both sides of the plate and has all the pitches," said Krueger, the former big-league hurler who played both baseball and basketball at the University of Portland.

Krueger said the Mariners need more offense, but it's difficult to get via trade unless you're willing to take on major salary or deal valuable pieces to the farm system.

Cano leads the AL with a .332 batting average, but after hitting 25 or more homers in the previous five seasons for the Yankees has only three in 61 games this season. He got his first Safeco Field long ball as a Mariner in the ninth inning Wednesday night.

"No power, I guess," Cano joked when asked about the homer drought by New York media on Tuesday. "I want to do what I can to help us win. I'm hitting away a lot, taking the ball where it's pitched. I don't want to just pull and try to hit homers."

Things might have been different had Seattle been able to hang onto Kendrys Morales, who hit .277 with 23 home runs and a team-high 80 RBIs last season. On Saturday, the veteran first baseman/designated hitter signed a one-year, $7.6-million contract with Minnesota after turning down a $14.1-million qualifying offer from Seattle in November. He sat out the first two months of the season in pursuit of a multi-year deal that never materialized.

For now, the Mariners have to score runs any way they can.

"The pitching keeps buying you time," Krueger said. "And they have comeback ability. This team does not die on the vine. They never feel like a game is over. That's a good sign. That's a confidence not every team has. This team hasn't had it for a long time. That's encouraging. You can steal a game here and there, and your front-line pitching wins you games."

The Mariners hope to stay relevant until the pennant races heat up in late summer.

"We still have better baseball to play," Zunino said.

"If we get everybody healthy and continue to play the way we have, I see no reason why we can't be in the thick of things come September," Ackley said. "It might surprise a lot of people, but it wouldn't surprise anybody here in this clubhouse. We're expecting to be there."

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