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Drayer: After just surviving first half, Mariners must thrive to make playoffs

The Mariners are 40-15 when they score four runs or more and 3-32 when they don't. (AP)

The Mariners open the second half in Chicago with work to be done. If the first half was about survive, the second must be about thrive if they are to have any hope of putting an end to their 15-year playoff drought.

We have seen flashes in the past month that would seem to indicate the Mariners have the potential to do so. The ever-elusive consistency will be the key. You can break down the task in front of them in any number of ways, but the key to opening the well-fortified door to the postseason for the Mariners may be as simple as the number four.

The Mariners are 40-15 when they score four runs or more and 3-32 when they score three or fewer. Feast or famine, do or die, break it down however you want, but for now just go out and score four. That would not appear to be too much to ask from a lineup that heading into the season many believed had a top-five middle-of-the-order with Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager.

And as it stands now, they also have a hit machine at the top of the lineup (Jean Segura), power threats at the bottom (Danny Valencia and Mike Zunino), and two rookies who have led the league in hitting (Ben Gamel) and WAR (Mitch Haniger) for moments in the first half. Add baseball’s best late-inning pest (Jarrod Dyson) and this lineup on paper looks every bit as good as it did in the preseason, perhaps better. Not only that, it’s a notable improvement from last year, and that team was in the playoff picture up until the final weekend.

“We’re more talented than we were a year ago, there’s no question in my mind about that,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said last week, “and last year from a similar position we made a run at what would be the most difficult time of our schedule. … This team is at least as good, in my mind. We are more athletic, we are more resilient in the ability to put together good at-bats.”

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To get back in a similar position, the Mariners don’t need star turns in the second half from those who put up career-bests in the first – they just need them to not fall off a cliff. They need to hit as a team, grind out at-bats and not be afraid to hand off to the hitter behind them. We have seen stretches of the team in this approach, and it usually results in crooked-number innings. It is what this lineup was built to do, and an approach that is natural for some, understood by others. It is something they have proved they are capable of.

They can take a step forward by being better at what I call the controllables in baseball: base running and defense. While one number never tells the complete story, there is absolutely no way the Mariners should be last in any base-running category with the team they have put together and the focus that has been put into it, yet there they are, at the very bottom of the league, dead last in BsR, a stat that encompasses almost all aspects of base-running. Only Dyson, Gamel and Taylor Motter posted positive scores, meaning under this assessment they were the only Mariners contributing runs above average on the bases. They cannot afford to be running into outs, but at the same time they need to maximize what speed and smarts they do have when they’re on board.

As for defense, it has been mostly good, with the outfield leading MLB in defensive runs saved and the infield a very respectable eighth. When you are in the position the Mariners are in, however, the small mistakes like boots and overthrows could be the difference between moving on or going home. While we saw Felix Hernandez in the final game of the first half come up with back-to-back double play balls necessitated by a Robinson Cano error, the pitching staff will need all the help it can get.

A record 31 pitchers – including two position players – took the hill for the Mariners in the first half. The good news? A modicum of order was restored in mid-June with the returns of Felix and James Paxton from the disabled list, but both the rotation and bullpen will need to take significant steps forward. There’s reason to believe they can, even without additions that more than likely are coming before the July 31 trade deadline.

While there is no question that injury played a big part in the pitching staff putting up bottom-five (and more often than not bottom-four) performances in the majority of categories, looking forward there could be a positive for the second half when it comes to those injuries. That’s because the further the players get from their injuries, the better we could see them play. Paxton and Felix are coming off encouraging performances after showing rust in their initial outings back from long shutdowns. We could see improvement coming from relievers that had offseason surgery as well, with Tony Zych throwing his best innings of the season in July and Steve Cishek perhaps pitching with more ceiling. We could also see improvement from the younger players as they gain more experience. The season debut of Shae Simmons, who was acquired to contribute this year, may not be far away, and perhaps rookie Emilio Pagan will get a well-earned longer look. Of course there is the potential for all of the above to go in the opposite direction, but if the foundation is solid, there is plenty from the first half to build on.

There is also plenty from the first half that the Mariners must put behind them. Get past the injuries and get into scratch-and-claw mode. The two do not have to go hand-in-hand, not when you are four games out of a wild-card spot with games remaining against all but one of the five teams ahead of you.

As I wrote two weeks ago, it is time to put the injuries of the first half behind them, and this may be easier said than done. I was surprised last week to hear a player bring up how tough it had been with all of the injuries. There is no question the injuries had an impact, but Felix and Paxton are back, as are Segura and Haniger. Drew Smyly is not coming back, though, and if there is no timetable on Hisashi Iwakuma’s return at this point, anything he could give in the next two-plus months should be looked at as bonus. This is the Mariners team for now, and it has the potential to be enough to get them to the next step – even giving reason to add before the trade deadline – but they cannot be looking back.

The All-Star break provides a great opportunity for a restart. Players are rested and first-half struggles can be put to rest. Cruz and Cano’s triumphant return from the All-Star Game will be enjoyed by all and perhaps provide a spark for the restart of the season. Young players in the lineup and clubhouse should be able to provide energy when the dog days hit, but first thing is first. The Mariners did not get the strong start out out of the gates they wanted. A very important do-over is at hand starting Friday in Chicago.

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