New-look Mariners begin to gain traction

Tim Brown

PEORIA, Ariz. – Chone Figgins(notes) has been beating the Seattle Mariners for so long, he paused for a moment Saturday to consider how he was going to beat the Los Angeles Angels.

The American League West has been lopsided for six years, a span that has seen five Angels titles and four Mariners last-place finishes, accompanied in Seattle by a steady turnover of general managers, field managers, coaching staffs and rosters.

While the Angels stuck to their program and kept winning, often enough with Figgins out front and doing all the annoying little things he does, the Mariners did most of the losing, changing directions and personalities seemingly by the month.

The wind, however, has blown them into calmer and more reasoned methods, the general manager choosing a course that has brought a philosophy of pitching and defense, of organizational depth, of Cliff Lee(notes) and, of course, Figgins.

Thinking this over, Figgins tugged at the bottom hem of his navy blue and Northwest green undershirt, soaked at the end of day in sweat.

''We,'' he said, for the moment meaning the Angels, ''were just trying to minimize our mistakes. The West has some good pitching. Defensively, we'd take away a run or two. Then we'd focus on getting that last run home from third, turning a one-run lead late in the game into a two-run lead, or tying the game and winning it later. Stuff like that wins games. You have to play defense and pitch, though.''

The Angels, his Angels, would lose all day by a foot and then win by an inch. In their six-season run, the Mariners lost 69 of 114 games to the Angels. And it wasn't just the Angels. At the same time, the Mariners also had losing records against the Oakland A's (53-60) and Texas Rangers (48-66). In six seasons against their three division foes, 18 season series in all, the Mariners had winning records in three.

Until last season, it was in part the pitching. But it was also in the many losses they took in the corners of games where contenders are born and sustained. And it is there where the Mariners are at work and settling into what they believe is a more dignified and productive existence.

More productive, anyway.

Ichiro Suzuki's(notes) pants were rolled up Saturday morning, exposing sneakers of about six colors, all of them blaring neon, none of them good.

Alas, Ken Griffey Jr.(notes) saw them [so did Google Earth, presumably]. Or maybe they were for his benefit. Griffey's expression was of a man in a canoe, paddling frantically from the falls.

''Oh, Lord,'' he said, a few days into camp and already exhausted by Ichiro's sartorial mishaps. ''Hey, those shoes make you go, 'Ooooooh.' ''

Twenty minutes later, Griffey arrived for batting practice in thick black high tops with Velcro straps, definitely old school.

''They're my tribute to Mike Tyson,'' he said.

They were also anti-Ichiro.

These Mariners are coming back not from 101 losses, but from 85 wins. Not from a swing-hard-in-case-you-hit-it winter, but from an offseason with a plan. They see a four-team race in the West, leading with a pitching staff [which was pretty terrific in '09] that added Lee for the rotation and Brandon League(notes) in the bullpen, and a defense that added Figgins and first baseman Casey Kotchman(notes) [to go along with midseason pickup Jack Wilson(notes) at shortstop]. And while they'll lack power, they're also thinking Figgins, Kotchman and Milton Bradley(notes) will mean more than the league-worst 640 runs they scored last season, when the offense petered out after Ichiro, Russell Branyan(notes), Gutierrez and, in part, Jose Lopez(notes).

For the moment, they've put Figgins at second base and are teaching Lopez to play third, hoping that means more range up the middle and a reasonable return on the corner. They view Eric Byrnes(notes), Ryan Garko(notes) and Mike Sweeney(notes) as necessary depth.

While they're at it, they're also having a pretty good time, some of it at the expense of Ichiro, most of it because they think they've become better. The Mariners have advanced from a year ago, when GM Jack Zduriencik and field manager Don Wakamatsu were rookies.

Leaning against a dugout rail, a Mariners cap pulled tightly against a morning chill, Zduriencik noted the ease in which his club went about its daily preparation.

''I think there's a familiarity with each other,'' he said. ''All of us know each other. The players who were here know what to expect. What we formed last year, the foundation of last year, players have built on that. A year ago nobody knew anything. We were trying to figure everything out.''

The expectation now is they will hang with the Angels, not just because of the Figgins swing, but for all of it.

''I don't know if I'm surprised,'' Figgins said. ''Our goal all along was to try to get better as quickly as we could. That being said, then it has to come together as a team.''

Well, there's that, the six-month ordeal that follows the shoe jokes and the position experiments and the hype. Figgins, perhaps, could speak for them all.

''I put a lot of pressure on myself in general,'' he said. ''The main reason I wanted to come here, I didn't have to change. They know what they're getting. But, I do want to play well. I mean, I did come here to win.''

He'll start in the corners.

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