The Seattle Mariners looked buried a couple of weeks ago. On April 22, they fell 5-2 to the Astros to extend a losing streak to eight games. Over the streak, they gave up at least five runs six times and scored more than two runs twice. Mariners hitters managed a .562 OPS, their pitchers surrendered 28 extra-base hits, and the club was outscored 46-18, a losing margin of over three runs per game.
In the 17 games since, the Mariners have revived their season with a 12-5 stretch. They've scored 4.7 runs per game and their pitchers have a sharp 3.62 ERA. Behind the strong stretch, Seattle finds itself in the thick of a four-team race between the traditional members of the American League West, as the Mariners, Angels and Rangers all entered play Sunday within three games of the division-leading Athletics. With the Mariners playing like the contenders the front office envisioned after a loud offseason, do they have enough to make a legitimate push for the playoffs?
Hisashi Iwakuma's return provides the biggest reason to believe. In two starts since returning from a strained middle finger, Iwakuma has thrown 14 2/3 innings with a 2.45 ERA, 10 strikeouts and just one walk allowed. Fantastic control was the keystone of Iwakuma's fantastic 2013 campaign (2.66 ERA and 4.4 K/BB over 219 2/3 innings) and the 33-year-old has brought the same to begin 2014. Felix Hernandez (2.73 ERA, 4.4 K/BB in eight starts) continues to pitch like a king, and with Iwakuma back, few can match the firepower atop Seattle's rotation.
On offense, Kyle Seager continues to be the straw that stirs the Mariners drink. Seager homered twice in the April 23 win over the Astros that opened Seattle's recent hot stretch. Entering that game, Seager had a .499 OPS. Since, he has mashed six home runs and knocked in 19 runs behind a .333/.406/.737 batting line. Elsewhere, Mike Zunino has shown enough pop to produce despite a brutal 33-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio -- his .462 slugging percentage ranks in the top five among AL catchers with at least 80 plate appearances.
But the dirty little secret of the Mariners' hot stretch has been a lineup that continues to struggle at the plate. Even with the three home runs the Mariners mustered against Royals starter Jeremy Guthrie in Sunday's loss, the club is hitting just .236/.305/.370 since breaking their eight-game losing streak, all below the AL average of .252/.322/.393. Overall, the Mariners have hit just .231/.294/.366 and their 4.1 runs per game ranks ahead of only Cleveland, Kansas City and Houston in the American League.
The pessimist sees a team that has had total incompetence from its outfield (.624 OPS, 27th in MLB). The pessimist sees a team struggling to fill out its rotation: Brandon Maurer owns a 6.20 ERA and has given the fifth spot to Chris Young after Erasmo Ramirez posted a 6.00 ERA in six starts. Young owns a 2.63 ERA thus far, but has started 30 games in the majors since 2010 and had a 6.81 ERA in the minor leagues last year. And the pessimist sees a team whose relievers have walked 4.5 batters per nine innings and could be cruising for more outings like Danny Farquhar's on Sunday, when he walked two batters in one inning and eventually surrendered a three-run home run to Johnny Giavotella, the finishing blow in a 9-7 loss.
But there is some room for the optimist. The optimist sees a team that can expect major improvement from Robinson Cano and Brad Miller. Cano is making constant contact as usual, but has just eight extra-base hits and one home run on the season. But early season power numbers are particularly unstable, as Mariners left fielder Dustin Ackley showed by raising his slugging percentage 71 points with a two-homer game Sunday. A good week could put Cano, currently hitting .295/.350/.370, much closer to his career .309/.355/.501 career line.
Miller has uncharacteristically struggled to make contact, with a 27 percent strikeout rate thus far. But he struck out in just 15.5 percent of plate appearances in 2013 and never had a strikeout rate above 17 percent in the minors, and the optimist would expect Miller to find his form once he starts making more contact. If Miller remains cold, the Mariners have another option in the form of Nick Franklin, currently hitting .356/.438/.622 for Triple-A Tacoma.
The optimist sees a rotation that can expect reinforcements in the form of young guns James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. Paxton struck out 13 in 12 innings in his first two starts and is expected to return from a lat strain near the end of the month. Walker has been dealing with shoulder bursitis since spring training, but threw a bullpen session Sunday and could be just a week or two behind Paxton. Walker was strong in three starts for the Mariners in 2013 and has been considered one of the game's top prospects since 2012. To the optimist, a rotation headed by Hernandez and Iwakuma supported by these two youngsters is practically pornographic.
The Mariners remain a flawed team, and the flaws exposed during their eight-game losing streak still exist. But over the past few weeks, the Mariners have showed why they have a chance to survive a tightly-bunched AL West. They'll need to get healthy and stay healthy, and they'll need some luck along the way as well. But considering no amount of luck or health could have pushed the embarrassing Seattle teams of the past four years into the playoffs, the 2014 club is already an improvement, and at the least the Pacific Northwest's optimists can envision a sunny summer for the Mariners.