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O’Neil: The Mariners have been lucky… and good

The Mariners have won 20 more than they've lost despite just a plus-1 run differential. (AP)

Ryon Healy’s second three-run homer on Sunday was undeniably impressive though not – in the end – important to the final outcome.

It was not insignificant, however.

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It allowed the Mariners to avoid the distinction of becoming the first team in baseball history to win 60 of its first 100 games in any season while allowing more runs than it had scored.

Nope. The Mariners have scored 423 runs while allowing 422 yet have 20 more victories than defeats, and this statistical paradox is the reason for plenty of hand-wringing about whether Seattle is simply very skilled at winning close games or has just been lucky.

The answer – as it is with most things – is somewhere in between.

The Mariners have been very fortunate. They are 8-0 in extra-innings games, which is absolutely, unsustainably lucky. It is not realistic to expect the team to remain undefeated in those contests.

But it’s not the extra-innings success that is at the root of the Mariners’ run differential. It’s the fact that they are exceptional in games decided by two runs or fewer while having a tendency – when they lose – to lose big. They’re like the girl with curl. When she was good, she was very good, but when she was bad, she was absolutely awful.

The Mariners have suffered 10 losses by six runs or more. They’ve won only six games by six or more. They’ve allowed 10 or more runs in six different games this season. They’ve scored that many only three times.

So when they lose, they lose big, but when they’re in a close game, they tend to win them – and that can’t be written off as luck. They have a good bullpen with a great closer in Edwin Díaz and they have a long lineup with power even at the bottom of the order that’s great at hitting fastballs. That’s a formula for success late in games, especially at a time when teams across the league are loading up on power arms in the bullpen.

But generally, teams aren’t able to concentrate the runs they allow in the games they lose. There are some factors that may accentuate that tendency. For instance, the use of a position player as a pitcher in a game that’s already out of hand. Or the fact that the Mariners have a number of starters who aren’t exactly hard throwers, meaning that if someone like Mike Leake – for instance – struggles with his location, the loss might be a little louder. That’s a polite way of saying that when a soft-tosser is off, he’s more likely to be treated like a piñata than a pitcher with more zip on his fastball.

But consolidating runs allowed into just those games the team loses is not any sort of repeatable skill, and if the Mariners continue at their current pace, expect to see some of those runs that were scored in lopsided losses to instead come across in close games, souring the Mariners’ record in close games.

Here’s the key segment of that previous sentence: “If the Mariners continue at their current pace …”

There’s nothing that says Seattle has to do that. In fact, there’s a good reason to think that Seattle won’t do that, starting with the impending return of Robinson Canó. And while that’s still three weeks down the road, the fact is that Seattle will have the player most people consider its best hitter available for two-thirds of the remaining games. That should help the Mariners score more runs.

The rest is up to the Mariners’ front office. They need to do something to improve either the pitching or the hitting. And anyone who has ever been short-stacked in the latter half of a poker tournament can understand the Mariners’ current predicament and why they need to be aggressive to make what happened these first 100 games hold up. I’ll explain why tomorrow.

More from 710 ESPN Seattle’s Danny O’Neil