By Brent Stecker
With the type of lineup the Mariners have been trotting out lately – heavy on rookies and other 20-somethings that are unproven at the Major League level – the focus is clearly shifted from winning now to providing hope that the team could be a winner in the coming years.
After back-to-back series wins on the road against the Texas Rangers and Cincinnati Reds, both members of the MLB’s current upper echelon, the Mariners have at least provided a glimmer of that hope.
Yes, veteran players that aren’t likely to be around past than this season had a hand in the four wins in six games. But even more important was the big confidence-building games at the plate from “the kids” like Nick Franklin, Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley and Brad Miller – each of whom had at least one multi-hit game on the trip.
Despite missing a start Saturday with a bruised knee, second baseman Franklin may have had the most impact on the team’s offense among the young bucks. He looked comfortable hitting out of the No. 2 spot in the order, as he homered Friday and Sunday and had a pair of two-hit games in Texas. He’s been with the Mariners since May 27, and with pitchers yet to make an adjustment against him, he’s rolling along with a .287 batting average (tops on the team among players with more than six at-bats), six homers, 18 RBIs and an .830 OPS.
The top of the lineup has seen a rotating cast of characters in 2013, but Franklin looks like he could be a long-term answer at the second spot. Shortstop Miller also looks like he could be a top-of-the-lineup cog, as his results hitting out of the leadoff spot against the Reds were promising. He tripled and scoring in his first at-bat in Friday’s 4-2 win, and he added another three-bagger later in the game. Even better than the hits was how he looked on the bases motoring his way to third – it was unmistakable speed and baserunning smarts that a team looks for in a table-setter.
Then there’s Smoak and Ackley, both of whom have multiple years of service under their belts but have struggled to find consistent success for the Mariners.
First baseman Smoak has looked like a new player since returning from injury on June 18, and nothing provided more optimism for fans and management alike than an opposite-field, two-run home run against Reds starter Bronson Arroyo on Sunday. After a dismal start to the season, he’s raised his average to .257 and OPS to .763, and four of his seven homers this season have come in the last 15 games.
Ackley still has a long road ahead of him, especially considering he’s been moved from second base to center field, where he hasn’t exactly looked comfortable. His questionable outfield arm was tested a few times in Saturday’s 13-4 loss to the Reds, and he didn’t exactly pass with flying colors. But the important thing for Ackley was a strong showing at the dish against the Reds; he went 3-for-8 with a double over the last two games in Cincinnati.
On paper, all the Mariners did in their last two series was win four of six games, still leaving them 10 games below .500 (39-49) and 12 games behind A.L. West-leading Oakland. But in the bigger picture, these two series wins were huge for the players that figure to be the team’s future.