BY John Hickey 02:16PM 06/30/2011

Hickey: Halfway, Mariners should ride it out, as is

At least competitive in the first half at 39-42, the Mariners are best served long-term by doing the best they can with what they have.

Felix Hernandez says he knows the Seattle offense will come around . / Getty Images

Halfway through the 2011 season, where do the Mariners stand?

For one thing, some of the Mariners can’t stand at all, at least not well enough to play baseball.

David Aardsma and setup reliever Shawn Kelley haven’t pitched all year. Catcher Adam Moore hasn’t played since April and likely won’t play again in 2011. Starting pitcher Erik Bedard and backup catcher Chris Gimenez went on the disabled list Wednesday. Catcher Miguel Olivo didn’t do the DL dance, but it’s clear that he’s hurting; it may be a while yet before he’s back behind the plate.

For another, after flirting with .500 for the last month or so, Seattle has lost three in a row, including Wednesday’s 4-1 loss to the Braves, and dropped seven of nine. In that stretch the Mariners have gone from two games over .500 to 39-42.

In that time, the external dialogue concerning the Mariners should have changed, although it seems that in the blogosphere and Twitterverse, that hasn’t happened.

The talk continues to be about what moves the Mariners should or should not make to stay in contention while gearing up to improve next year.

The past nine games suggest the offense won’t be good enough to keep the club competitive unless the pitchers do nothing but throw lights-out the rest of the season.

As the Braves proved against Felix Hernandez Wednesday afternoon, that’s not always the case. Atlanta roughed him up for eight hits from the fourth through the seventh innings, the time when Hernandez tends to be at his best. He gave up 10 hits. The offense could not make a game of it against former Mariner Derek Lowe.

So it has gone this season.  A horribly under-productive offense has crippled a team that has pitching that takes no back seat to any staff.

Seattle averages about 3.5 runs per game, but that doesn’t tell the tale. In 35 of the 81 games, the Mariners have scored two or less runs. That means in 43 percent of the schedule, pitchers have no room for error. That kind of precision is simply not sustainable.

Hernandez doesn’t like to hear that kind of offense-bashing talk.

“C’mon,’’ he said after Wednesday’s loss, dragging out the word. “These guys are going to hit. We (the pitchers) know that.

“We’ve been up and down all year; we know that. But we haven’t really put a good streak together yet with our hitters. But they will. And when they do, we’ll be hard to stop.’’

Maybe, but for the first half, the Mariners have been far too easy to stop. Opponents have 3.12 ERA when facing the Mariners, better than any ERA for any team in the American League.

The needs are such that a trade or two by general manager Jack Zduriencik isn’t the answer.  For every upgrade the trading pool offers, the Mariners would have to strip an already thin 25-man roster or ravage the minor league system the organization is counting on to get better.

The Mariners need improvement across the board, which is why Zduriencik is likely to stand pat. The future isn’t all about 2011, which is why manager Eric Wedge keeps trying to get DH Jack Cust, third baseman Chone Figgins and center fielder Franklin Gutierrez going with frequent tweaks to the lineup.

Cust had a big night Tuesday, his first start in 12 games, getting a double and a homer. Wednesday,  he didn’t make contact – three strikeouts and a walk. He’s hitting .219. Figgins plays only about half the time now, is booed when he does, and his average is .186. Gutierrez played in just 36 of Seattle’s 81 games and is at .197.

Even if all three return to their career averages – Figgins did just that last year – that may not be sufficient. The Mariners also need first baseman Justin Smoak to come back to life – he’s hitless in his last 21 at-bats to fall to .243. They need to see Ichiro do much more what he’s done lately. He is 26-for-72 (.361) to get his average up to .275.

Ichiro has 92 hits through 81 games, which means he’s well under the pace that would see him reel in another 200-hit season. He’s going to have to average about .335, which is well within the abilities of the 37-year-old, who has hit above .335 in four of his 10 full big league seasons, most recently in 2009.

If Ichiro hits that pace, things set up better for the rest of the offense, including Smoak, the team’s best run producer, and Adam Kennedy, the team’s steadiest middle-of-the-lineup hitter.

Wedge may well find that he needs to move rookie Dustin Ackley, who has a .300 average and a .378 on-base percentage in his first dozen games, into the No. 2 slot between Ichiro and Kennedy/Smoak. Brendan Ryan is there now, and he’s been fighting it with a .252 average and .317 on-base percentage.

More base runners from the top of the lineup will translate into more runs, even with this sluggish offense.

The hitters know the pitchers — at a collective 3.25 ERA, the staff is second in the league only to Oakland — have carried them.

“The pitchers have been great all along,’’ Figgins said. “The fans here haven’t seen the hitters get into a streak yet. When they do, it will be something to watch.’’

Better late than never.


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