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‘It’s just a different team’: How the Mariners have built chemistry under Scott Servais

Strong chemistry has helped Scott Servais' Mariners get 20 games over .500. (AP)

Does chemistry lead to winning, or is there chemistry because a team is winning?

That age old baseball debate will go on, but one thing is certain – the Mariners have both. In-game or before in the clubhouse, it is impossible to miss. These guys clearly like each other, and they like playing together.

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“The team as a whole, there’s no factions on this team,” said Wade LeBlanc. “Everybody is pulling on the same end of the rope. It’s awesome.”

The goal is simple, according to Mitch Haniger.

“Spring training everyone was on board with putting this team first and just winning ball games,” he said on SportsCenter last Thursday. “That’s what we embodied as a team, is putting the team first and not worrying about your own stats. As far as how you can help the team win, it makes easier to have your performance come out.”

Getting 25 professionals whose stats will largely determine their future (and future earnings) to put personal numbers aside for the good of the collective – and trust that it will all work out – is not something that just happens. The trust is something that has to be developed, and in his third year with the Mariners it appears manager Scott Servais has done that.

It’s a process that Nelson Cruz gave us an inside look at last Friday on 710 ESPN Seattle’s Danny, Dave and Moore (listen to the interview here).

“The last few years he’s been different,” Cruz said of Servais. “I guess first few years he got that pressure to really push it to win. Even if you don’t show it, you know, you feel it.

“And now he’s more relaxed, he knows what everyone can do on different days and we all understand him now, like we are all on the same page. I mean, if you go through the bullpen, even the guys on the bench, the guys who can play every day, platoon guys, they all understand and in the same process, he knows everybody. He understands also the other teams, he always comes with some ideas to the meetings how we will attack, what to (do on) defense. So definitely it’s a process for everybody and he is one of the best right now.”

Cruz has helped reinforce the process, going so far as to hold a ‘minicamp’ of sorts in the offseason to give new players an introduction to who the Mariners are and what they are about. While in many years past we saw teams struggle to find an identity, this group has one. Once again, it’s something Cruz credits Servais for helping the team establish.

“We really have fun,” Cruz said. “We keep it loose, even when we travel we have so much fun. In the meetings we do what we want to do. He lets you be yourself, that’s the most important thing. If you want to have a long hair, have long hair. Whatever your style might be, just do it. Be yourself. As a player you want to be who you are and feel comfortable when you go to the stadium.

“Feel better on a daily basis, it makes you a better player.”

From Day 1 in the organization, Servais has had a vision for the culture that he wanted the Mariners to have, and he has done what he can to facilitate it while stressing that a team’s culture and identity can’t be forced. He did find one way to help it along, however. The ‘get-to-knows’ in the daily morning meetings each day in spring training made it impossible for teammates to miss other teammates in different position groups or corners of the clubhouse. Injecting fun into meetings and activities has been part of this, as well, as has smaller meetings Servais has had with players throughout each season.

As for the the importance of players feeling they can be themselves, as stated by Cruz, the funny thing is that is something Servais has always stressed. In a game where individuality is not usually encouraged, it perhaps took longer for the players themselves to be comfortable with that.

“When we have a big play in a game or a big hit, from my vantage point, just sit back and let the players enjoy it,” Servais said on Brock and Salk. “I felt at times here early on in my tenure as manager, I was the biggest cheerleader, trying to get some of that stuff to come out, but we certainly have got guys who can carry the torch and those are the guys that are doing it. … I think the biggest thing is we are letting all of their personalities come out.”

When asked if the team’s personality reflected himself, Servais laughed and said thankfully no (“I have often said I would never want 25 guys on a team like me because it would be boring”). While the team may not have taken on his personality, there is one aspect critical to the Mariners’ success that comes directly from the skipper. Kyle Seager hit on it after a game in Houston earlier this month.

“We get down 3-1 and we are kind of looking around there, and in years past it kind of would have been a different feeling in the dugout there,” Seager said. “There’s really not a lot of panic with this team. It’s just a different team.”

The ability to push panic aside comes with belief, and Servais believes in this group, its process and the preparation that has been put in.

Coming into spring training his focus was on the guys he had. If questions were swirling about this club, he didn’t hear them. When injuries occurred, it was “Move on.” If there was pressure to win now, well, there were no games in Arizona that counted so the preparation was the proper focus at the time.

The team broke camp with a belief in the group they were part of and a singular focus. That belief and focus helped get them through early adversity with key players injured and the Robinson Canó suspension. With the Mariners holding on to an eight-game lead for a wild card spot, it would appear their ultimate goal is within reach. To make it to the postseason and give a fan base starved for the October experience a long overdue reward, Servais will look for the Mariners to continue to buy in, stay on the same page, and pull the same end of the rope.

“I think our group, we are a collection of guys and it’s a team,” Servais said. “I think in baseball because it is so statistically driven, everybody is worried about their numbers, and at the big league level you would hope they are playing for something bigger than themselves – and we are definitely doing that.”

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