Mariners play wild card close to their vest


The Seattle Mariners are threatening to put a little suspense back into one of the three runaway races in the American League, but they aren't yet willing to admit it.

The first-place California Angels, one of five division leaders with a double-digit lead a week ago, have lost eight in a row, allowing the Mariners to creep close enough for a legitimate run at the division title. But the Mariners insist that they are still trolling for smaller fish.

"We're focused on the wild card right now," said manager Lou Piniella. "We recognize that we have picked up some ground on them. I think if we do well in the wild-card race, we have a chance to do well in the other race."

Welcome to baseball's strange new world, where the gap between the best and the rest is so wide that the wild-card standings have taken center stage everywhere but in the NL West. The Mariners are running neck-and-neck with the Kansas City Royals for the American League's extra playoff berth, and they aren't ready to turn their attention to the Angels just yet.

"I'm sure the Angels are thinking about it more than we are," said veteran pitcher Tim Belcher. "Our focus as been on the wild card the last three or four weeks, because they had such a big lead."

The Mariners trailed California by 11 1/2 games 10 days ago, but they have cut that deficit in half -- thanks largely to the Angels' first serious slump of the year. The Texas Rangers also have been in a tailspin, allowing Seattle to move into second place and get in position for the only divisional challenge still plausible in the American League.

"We're just going to play hard every day," Piniella said, "and whatever happens, happens."

Judging from the stat sheet, they will have no one but themselves to blame if they don't get to the top of the standings. The starting rotation has been solid and the offensive lineup entered last night's game ranked fourth in the league in runs scored. But the Mariners have made a habit of letting games get away in the late innings.

Seattle starter Chris Bosio, who took the mound against Kevin Brown at Camden Yards last night, came into the game with a respectable 9-6 record in his 25 previous starts, but the club was 0-10 in his 10 no-decisions. In all, the bullpen has blown 20 save opportunities, betraying a weakness that could figure prominently down the stretch.

"The only thing that can stop the Mariners is the Mariners," said Mariners broadcaster Ron Fairly. "When they are playing well, they are a very good team. But I keep a tally in my scorebook of what I call their turnover ratio -- the number of games that they have given away subtracted from the number of games that other teams have given to them. Right now it's minus 12."

But there are a lot of pluses, too. The Mariners have three hitters ranked among the American League RBIs leaders. Designated hitter Edgar Martinez, who broke a scoreless tie with his 26th home run last night, leads the league in hitting and ranks second with 101 RBIs and third with 101 runs. First baseman Tino Martinez entered the game ranked eighth in the league with 89 RBIs and outfielder Jay Buhner was ninth with 88.

The batting order has been particularly productive during the past month, averaging 6.4 runs over the last 28 games, even though injured superstar Ken Griffey has yet to recover the stroke that made him the dominant offensive player in the American League last year.

It all seems to be coming together, even if Brown held the Mariners to just a handful of hits last night. Griffey is certain to come around and the club will be stronger than when he left because of the surprising deal that added right-hander Andy Benes (3-1 in the AL) to the rotation on July 31.

The troubles that have beset the other AL West teams have helped vault the Mariners back into realistic contention, but they may have to do the rest themselves.

"I'm very new to this team," Benes said, "but I think our concern is not about what other teams are doing. Our focus has got to be on what we can do, not what Texas or California or Kansas City are doing. You have to play hard every day. If we do that, we have a good chance to be either the division winner or the wild card team."

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