SEATTLE -- We've got two games left against the Mariners in this series, which means it's not too late to scout the opponent. Ryan Divish from the Tacoma News Tribune was kind enough to answer some questions about Seattle.
Q: Give us an overall sense of how the Mariners are doing. It looks like they've played better since the first few weeks of the season.
Divish: The overall sense of the Mariners has dramatically changed over the last the week. Heading into the six-game road trip, they were 8-15 and struggling to score runs. Obviously, it's not uncommon for teams to have slow offensive starts, but after what transpired last season. So when they struggled to score runs early, there that dooming sense of here we go again. And there was good reason to think it might happen again. If you looked at the Mariners roster, and the early struggles of Chone Figgins, Jack Cust, Milton Bradley, Brendan Ryan, there was reason to believe they might just be that awful again.
But then they went to Detroit and things started to improve. Of course the starting pitching of Phil Coke and the Tigers awful bullpen helped them immensely. They won three games in Detroit, and actually scored runs. And it carried over to Boston, where they won two of three. Did they get lucky to win those games? Yeah, it helped that Bobby Jenks couldn't throw the ball across the plate, and when he did it got hit hard. Still, winning five of six seems to have given them confidence. It seems like they've relaxed at the plate.
Q: How are fans and the players reacting to new manager Eric Wedge? What kind of traits has he shown as a manager?
Divish: I don't know that fans have a great sense of Wedge other than he's intense and he has a sweet mustache like Stacy Keach in Prison Break. The things he's said about what he believes and expects from players have resonated if for no other reason that it was so different from Don Wakamatsu, who was so controlled and stoic. Fans who reminisce of the days of Lou Piniella can see some of those qualities in Wedge.
Wedge let the players know his expectations in spring training, but they found out that he meant it when he benched Jack Wilson and called him out after Wilson told the media he was pulled from a game in Texas, when in truth he begged out of the game. Wedge let him have it in the media and benched him for four games.
Then in Kansas City, after a 7-0 loss, he let them have it after the game. He could be heard outside the clubhouse screaming. Having seen how intense he is, I can only imagine what that was like.
Since being yelled at, they are 9-5. I don't know if it made them play better, but it certainly let players know that he's watching and he will say what he thinks.
Q: Once again, Ichiro Suzuki seems to be hitting well. Talk about what makes him so effective and consistent.
Divish: Ichiro never ceases to amaze me with is production or his consistency. But the key to his success is the preparation. It's in the hours, days and weeks leading up to the games. He is borderline obsessive-compulsive when it comes to his daily preparation. There's hitting, stretching, more hitting, more stretching. He does it every day without fail, and it appears to be down to the exact minute when he does it. And the guy barely takes break in the offseason. He usually takes around two weeks to relax and rest and then is back hitting and conditioning.
It's all that stuff that makes him the hitter he is. He may not be the leader that some people expect or demand. Is he worth $19 million a year? Probably not. But he comes to the park prepared every day and he produces.
Q: Give us a quick scouting report on the remaining two starters we'll see in this series.
Divish: Michael Pineda: He's been fantastic. I covered him last year at Triple A for a few games and was amazed by his poise and presence on the mound. And it's gotten even better this year. He's 22 and he pitches with so much maturity. The fastball is right around 93-97 and his slider has been outstanding in his last few starts. But the big question is his changeup. He needs to have success against left-handers. Lefty hitters have had the most success against him. If I were Ron Washington, I would load the lineup with lefties against him.
Jason Vargas: He picked up his first win in over a year in Boston. He's one of those lefties that doesn't throw hard, 88-90, and will use a changeup, cut fastball and curveball a lot. He has a good understanding of how to get people out. He never really gets rattled. The key for Vargas will be to increase the number of ground balls per game. That's usually a sign that his changeup -- his best -- pitch is working.
Q: Who has been the biggest surprise this season (besides Pineda) and who has been the biggest disappointment?
Divish: The biggest surprise to me has been (former Ranger) Justin Smoak. When he was on the bereavement list for a week following the death of his father, the Mariners lineup was a disaster. There was absolutely no presence or threat in the middle of the lineup, especially with Cust struggling so badly.
Smoak has been outstanding this year. He's shown power from both sides of the plate, which has been a little shocking. In spring training, he really struggled driving the ball when he was hitting right-handed. But he's hitting the ball with authority. He's also shown a knack for getting hits with runners in scoring position -- something the rest of the team struggles to do. He has also shown a good approach at the plate, taking walks and adjusting to the number of breaking pitches he's seeing. He looks nothing like the player that came over in July following the Cliff Lee trade. He admitted he was a little overwhelmed with all that happened. And GM Jack Zduriencik admitted that Smoak may have been a little rushed in getting to get to the big leagues last season. The late trip to Triple A seemed to help him re-discover his approach and his swing.
Q: Anything else about the Mariners we should know?
Divish: I guess this would fall in the surprising category, but the Mariners bullpen has been really solid over the last few weeks. They had a stretch of 14 scoreless innings. And the pitchers responsible were Jamey Wright, David Pauley and Aaron Laffey. That wasn't really expected.