Better baseball through chemistry for '09 Mariners

On the eve of the 2009 home-opener at Safeco Field (April 14), “chemistry” continues to be the key word associated with the 33rd edition of the Seattle Mariners. During the offseason, the term was invoked so often that I wasn’t sure whether I was reading a sports section or an academic course catalog.

Imagine the surprise, then, that the M’s, after squeaking past Oakland, 1-0, on Sunday because of a sensational eight-plus-inning pitching effort by Erik Bedard, should come home from a 5-2 season-opening road trip having somehow survived – even flourished at times – without the one sustaining element available the past decade. Ichiro Suzuki, the team’s oxygen supply since he arrived in 2001, has been on the disabled list while his team has amassed its impressive week-one record. No. 51 (his uniform numeral, not his periodic chart designation) has been on the disabled list nursing a bleeding ulcer and isn’t expected to play until later this week.

Were it some other superstar, perhaps one could dispense with the discussion of team chemistry. But much of the mumbling during the offseason was about the notion that Ichiro has been aloof amid fellow players – that, indeed, it is he who prevented the “chemical” bond known as teamwork.

Jose Lopez, the second baseman who had a key pinch hit against Oakland (Saturday, April 11) gushed after the game about all the love in an M’s clubhouse now populated with returning hero Ken Griffey Jr. as well as other mature team guys (not least Mike Sweeney, who had the winning RBI on Sunday). Was Lopez really saying that the M’s would be better off without Ichiro, a big-league career .331 hitter and a perennial Gold Glove-winner?

One hesitates to go quite that far. What is known is that the M’s, instead of merely being 5-2 and in first place in the American League West division, actually could have come home 7-0. An almost comically blown save the second night in Minnesota (April 7) and a one-run loss the next night easily could have gone Seattle’s way. The most impressive feats of the first week included both individual and team efforts. The former was a five-hit, eight-inning shutout on Thursday by Jarrod Washburn, the lefty also known to many skeptical fans as “washed-up.” The best team effort came Saturday, when the M’s rallied from a three-run deficit to win 8-5.

Lopez and others, including new manager Don Wakamatsu, have spoken of players’ greater willingness this season to do the selfless, proverbial “little things” to help the club win. This includes playing smart, astute baseball: moving runners along with bunts and other sacrificial gestures.

It also genuinely seems to have helped to have the presence of Griffey (who homered during the first game) and others not just on the field but in the dugout, engaged in games and generous in their efforts to build team spirit.

It can be folly to make a lot of first-week statistics. It is worth noting, though, that the Mariners, after six games, were second in the 14-team league in team pitching, fifth in hitting and sixth in fielding. If they could sustain this for six months, the M’s actually could contend in and perhaps win their division.

The upcoming nine-game homestand will pose some critical tests. Seattle starts with three against the consensus division-fave Angels, then the M’s face a talented Detroit team before finishing with a trio against the defending A.L. champ Tampa Bay Rays.

Another challenge will be borne by fans trying to negotiate traffic around Safeco Field. Commuters from Mercer Island will want to research pertinent road-access restrictions that promise to plague the stadium district during the early part of the season. Go to a Seattle Mariners Web site story for specific advice:

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