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KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Defense, pitching strong for Seattle through first half of MLB season

SEATTLE — I'm not sure how good the 2018 Seattle Mariners really are, but I feel pretty confident about two things:

• They're going to be in the American League playoffs for the first time since 2001.

• The Three Musketeers had nothing on them in terms of togetherness.

These Mariners are scrappy, tight and perhaps the most surprising team in major league baseball this season.

There is nothing particularly outstanding about them on the field. Though they have three players named to the All-Star Game — right fielder Mitch Haniger, designated hitter Nelson Cruz and closer Edwin Diaz — they're right in the middle of the AL in runs scored, batting average and home runs, just a little better than that in ERA and opponents' batting average.

But a week before the All-Star break, they find themselves with the fourth-best record in the majors at 57-34.

That's not in the same league as the 2001 Mariners, who were 66-25 after 91 games en route to a franchise-record mark of 116-46 — the best record ever for a 162-game regular season. But it's still impressive, especially for an organization that hasn't sniffed the playoffs in 17 years.

After closing out a nine-game homestand with a 6-4 victory over Colorado on Sunday at Safeco Field, Seattle had a better record than every team in the majors except for Boston (62-29), Houston (61-31) and the New York Yankees (58-29). The Mariners trail the Astros by 3 1/2 games in the AL West race but are 6 1/2 games ahead of Oakland (50-40) for the league's second wild-card berth.

"It's been a great first half for us," said pitcher James Paxton, who could have joined the Mariners' parade to the All-Star Game. "We've been playing really good baseball. We have a good team. We're all in it to get to the postseason this year, and we're feeling confident."

SERVAISThe Mariners recently enjoyed a season-high eight-game win streak and have won 11 of 14, including six of nine on the recent homestand. Prior to that, they had lost five in a row and six of seven, getting swept in a three-game visit to Yankee Stadium.

"Getting off the plane after the East Coast trip, I wondered, 'Are we tired as a ballclub?'" third-year manager Scott Servais said. "Our guys stepped up and had a really nice homestand.

"We've had some knocks. That's part of what you go through in a long season. You grind through it. This is where we're at, and it's a pretty good place."

The starting rotation of Paxton (8-3, 3.49 ERA), Mike Leake (8-5, 4.11), Marco Gonzales (9-5, 3.64), Felix Hernandez (8-7, 5.13) and Wade LeBlanc (5-0, 3.39) "has been outstanding," Servais says.

"A lot of people questioned why we didn't sign a free-agent starter in the offseason," Servais says, "but we made our acquisitions in the second half of last season."

General manager Jerry DiPoto gave up a minor-league player each in separate deals with St. Louis for Leake and Gonzales last July and August. They've been Seattle's Nos. 2 and 3 starters behind Paxton, who has thrown a no-hitter and become one of baseball's premier left-handers. LeBlanc, who turns 34 on Aug. 7, joined the team in spring training after he was released by the Yankees.

"All the teams that are doing well are driven by their pitching, and they all have that top guy," Servais says. "James is our top-of-the-rotation guy, our horse. Marco has been very consistent, Mike has given us a shot in the arm and Wade has stepped up."

Hernandez is the greatest pitcher in franchise history, a six-time All-Star with 168 victories and a Cy Young Award over 14 seasons in a Seattle uniform. At 32, the Venezuelan is on the down side of his career and, though he has eight wins, has been the weak link in the rotation this season.

That's been balanced by a bullpen led by the flame-throwing right-hander Diaz, 24, who has a major league-high 35 saves, the most in a first half in franchise history. The relief corps includes left-hander James Pazos (2-1, 1.72) and right-handers Danny Altavilla (3-2, 2.61), Chasen Bradford (5-0, 2.65) and set-up man Alex Colome (2-5, 4.34).

"Everyone wants to talk about Eddie, but the other guys have gotten us key outs," Servais says. "The reason we've been able to put winning streaks together is because of the starting pitching and the bullpen."

Says Cruz: "Pitching has been the biggest difference for us from a year ago, especially the starters. The bullpen has done a nice job, Diaz and all those guys. Remarkable, really."

The Mariners have gotten standout play from some position players, too, notably Haniger, Cruz, shortstop Jean Segura and second baseman Dee Gordon. In his second full major-league season, Haniger, 27, is hitting .271 with 17 home runs and 62 RBIs, the latter figure tied for second in the AL. He also has a staggering 13 two-out, game-winning hits. Cruz, 38, is hitting .271 with 22 homers and 53 RBIs.

Segura — who came to Seattle with Haniger before last season in a trade that sent pitcher Taijuan Walker and shortstop Ketel Marte to Arizona — ranks third in the league with a .330 average. Segura could still be added to the final AL roster spot by a vote of the fans.

"I'm shocked Segura isn't on (the All-Star team)," Servais says. "It's really hard to hit .330 for two weeks, let alone a half-season. Jean has been unbelievable defensively, too, which goes under the radar."

Then there is Gordon, acquired during the offseason in a trade with Miami. Gordon, hitting .284 with 22 stolen bases, started the season in center field but was moved to second base — his natural position — after Robinson Cano was suspended in May for 80 games for a performance-enhancing drugs violation. Gordon hasn't skipped a beat and is better than Cano defensively.

"Dee has some kind of range going both ways," Servais says. "He has great baseball IQ and a great internal clock at the defensive end. He's a really gifted player."

The Mariners have specialized in winning close games. They are a major league-best 38-14 in games decided by one or two runs — 26-11 in one-run games, 12-3 in two-run games.

"We've gotten a lot of clutch hits," Cruz says.

"Our pitching has kept us in games when we haven't been swinging it the way we know we can," reserve outfielder Ben Gamel says. "That has kept us in a bunch of tight games we've ended up winning. A lot of it has been timely hitting, good pitching and defense."

"We've had a lot of come-from-behind wins, a lot of close wins, and that speaks to the character of the team," third-base coach Scott Brosius says. "Sometimes the whole is greater than the parts. We've seen that with this team. Different guys have stepped up."

The players speak about a special camaraderie that exists with this Seattle team. Like the Musketeers, it's all for one and one for all.

"It's very strong with this club, and I don't think it's by accident," first baseman Ryon Healy says. "A lot of guys in here have the right mind-set. We care about one another. Guys are picking each other up when we're down. There's a lot of positive energy in our clubhouse."

"We have a good mix of personalities, good chemistry," Paxton says. "Everyone likes each other and enjoys playing hard for each other."

It's especially true of the five starters, who watch each others' bullpen sessions.

"It means a lot," Servais says. "They hold each other accountable. You often see hitters hang out in the cage together, but you don't see that very often with (rotations). Sometimes you have the bullpen unit work together, but with our starters, they're together, very tight, they spend a lot of time together. You love to see that."

Says Gonzales: "We're confident. We mesh really well. We learn a lot from each other. We push each other to get better. We keep each other grounded and humble. We enjoy watching each other and bonding in the dugout."

Brosius, who played on three World Series championship teams with the Yankees, says the 2018 Mariners have the right intangibles.

"When guys truly get to a place where they start pulling for each other, good things can happen," Brosius says. "We've been up and down offensively, but our pitching and defense have been great. That's the foundation of good teams. You pitch well, you play good defense and have a team that competes. You have to hate losing as much as you like winning, and this team has that."

Cano returns on Aug. 14, but will be ineligible to participate in the postseason. His role upon return has yet to be determined, but there's no doubt Gordon will remain the regular second baseman, with Cano playing some second and DH and pinch-hitting when needed.

These Mariners seem destined for the playoffs. The question is, will their first taste be in a five-game series as a division champion, or in a one-game playoff as a wild card?

"We'd like to (win the AL West title), and we have a good chance," Healy says. "Nobody is getting ahead of themselves in that regard, but we entered the season with that goal in mind. We're focused on the day-to-day grind right now."

Brosius has more playoff experience than any of Seattle's other coaches or players.

"You want the focus in the second half of the year to continue to build on what you started in the first half," he says. "When you get to the postseason, it's a different world. If you go in as the division winner, you go straight to a series. If you go in as the wild card, then you're in a Game 7.

"There are good teams in this league this season — New York, Boston, Houston, Cleveland. We've played well against them. We know if we step onto the field for one game or for a five-year series, we can compete with anybody."

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