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Drayer: Mariners set up for important final month after strong road trip

Mariners catcher Tom Murphy caught fire at the plate during Seattle's recent road trip. (AP)

It was disappointing for the Mariners to not pick up the final win in an otherwise good road trip Wednesday in Tampa, but Seattle came away with something perhaps more valuable than one more win during the nine games played away from home: A bit of a refresh.

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“We played well,” said Mariners outfielder Mallex Smith, who hit a go-ahead two-run triple in the ninth Wednesday before the Rays came back in the bottom of the inning. “We good. We have got good team camaraderie, just giving us something to look forward to continue to finish the season out strong and then moving on to the next season.”

The affirmation was needed after a painful streak of just one win in their previous nine games heading into the trip. Add to that the quiet in the clubhouse that led up to the July 31 trade deadline, and it seemed a reboot was needed.

“Definitely,” agreed Smith, who is always quick with his answers. He then paused and clarified.

“Well, not necessarily. Camaraderie is good. More than anything just a spark in everybody knowing they belong here, we are a good team and we can play some good ball.”

We saw good ball on the trip that took the Mariners from Detroit to Toronto to Tampa. From Kyle Seager and Austin Nola continuing to show consistency at the plate, to Tom Murphy going on a massive tear, to a bullpen that has shown itself to be more solid in the last month than any time this season, to Yusei Kikuchi turning in the performance of his career, there was plenty good. Now with six weeks to go until the season ends, they have the opportunity to build off that.

The final six weeks of the season could prove to be the most important. Not in terms of wins and losses but in terms of getting important questions answered. And after the May and July this team had, the fact that there are questions the Mariners could still find answers to in the affirmative is a good thing.

There is plenty to be learned about individuals, systems and the group as a whole. There are the obvious performance questions, such as whether Seager’s offseason changes and in-season adjustments put him on a reasonably sustainable path going forward. Does Kikuchi have something to build off of or was the performance in Toronto a one-off? Are Daniel Vogelbach and Domingo Santana their first- or second-half selves? Who sticks from this current bullpen? Does Dylan Moore have a challenger for the utility spot in Tim Lopes?

Then there are team questions. There was an 1-6 road trip followed by an 0-6 road trip in May, then an 0-5 trip in July. At some point a team has to learn to how to win a game here and there regardless of personnel and regardless of competition. They will have the opportunity in the final weeks of the season. Little things can be the difference between wins and losses and it would be nice to see one of those one-run losses against the Astros from earlier this season turned into a one-run win.

Young players have and will continue to be added to the mix with September call-ups. Jake Fraley and Justus Sheffield are up and will play. They will be joined by others, and while a month in September is a small sample for performance, they are valuable games for experience and development.

The final weeks of the season are important for the Mariners and they have perhaps set them up nicely with the road trip they just completed. As Smith said, the camaraderie is there. The clubhouse is lively again – in large part because of Vogelbach, who has been consistent with who he is regardless of what his numbers are this season. The work is ongoing.

For a team that has no hope for playoffs in August, the dog days more often than not set in, but this group seems to be revving up. Young players arriving should bring energy and keep that going. Win or lose, the Mariners have the opportunity to show something, and most importantly answer questions heading into the offseason.

Follow Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

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