BY John Hickey 12:11PM 07/07/2011

Hickey: Seager arrives in time for crucial 20-game stretch

The Mariners are entering the toughest part of their schedule with a new addition at third base, rookie Kyle Seager. Will he provide a boost similar to Dustin Ackley?

The Mariners have desperate hope Kyle Seager can provide at the plate the way fellow rookie Dustin Ackley has. / Photo courtesy Tacoma Rainiers

With the potentially most important stretch of the season before them, the Mariners are remaking the roster one more time.

Kyle Seager, who has been a hitting machine since the Mariners took him out of North Carolina in the 2009, joins the team in Anaheim Thursday night where he will take over as the starting third baseman.

The timing is not happenstance. Thursday’s game against the Angels is the beginning of a 20-game stretch in which the Mariners’ fate as a contender or pretender in the American League West will be determined.

The opponents in Seattle’s next six series include four teams within one game of first place in their respective division as of Thursday morning, and perhaps the best third-place team in the Major Leagues.

The Mariners have four games with the Angels, who have rallied to climb to within one game of Texas, to close out the first half. Seattle then comes out of the break with four at home against the Rangers, who shrugged off a series of injuries to lead the West virtually all the season.

From there the third-place Mariners (43-44, 3½ games back of the Angels) get the only sub-.500 team in the 20-game stretch, playing three at Toronto, but finish up that road trip with three games each against the AL East beasts, Boston and New York, before finishing up with three games at home against the East’s third-place team, Tampa Bay.

The Yankees lead the Red Sox by a half game. Though the Rays are four games back, they are nine games over .500 (48-39); no other third-place team in the game is more than three games over .500.

It’s a formidable task, but the Mariners, for all their troubles in the first half of the season, actually have done fairly well against the AL’s winningest teams. They are 3-1 against Tampa Bay, 2-1 against Boston, New York and Toronto and 3-2 against Anaheim. The only team among the six in the 20-game stretch that has a winning record against Seattle is Texas at 4-2.

There are seven teams in the American League that came into Wednesday over .500, and Seattle has winning records against five of them – Detroit in addition to the Angels, Red Sox, Yankees and Rays.

For all of that, the Mariners are under .500 starting this crucial stretch because they have had some grim days against mediocre and worse teams – they are a combined 3-7 against Kansas City and Baltimore, last in the Central and last in the East, respectively.

How will Seager impact this? Third base has been a wasteland for Seattle for all but two months of the last season and half. After a slow 2010 start, Chone Figgins rallied in August and September last year, but he’s at .183 this year and leads the team with 10 errors. Adam Kennedy can play there, but it’s not his best position, and at 35, he’s at an age where the Mariners don’t want to burn him out by playing him daily.

Curiously, Seager isn’t a third baseman by trade. Back at North Carolina, he was a second baseman on the same team where Dustin Ackley was an outfielder/first baseman/DH. Now that Ackley has made the conversion to second base, Seager has spent time at third in the minor leagues this year, and that’s where he’s going to get his chance.

If he hits, it won’t matter much how well adapted Seager is at third base. Whether or not he can have the kind of impact on Seattle that Ackley (.302 and three homers in three weeks) has had has yet to be determined, but the fact is Seager has been tearing up minor league pitching since the Mariners took him with the third round in ’09.

“Kyle has tremendous hand-eye coordination,” Pedro Grifol, the Mariners’ minor league boss, said. “He covers the plate extremely well. And that’s a great combination.

“He knows the strike zone and knows what kind of hitter he is. He does not waste at-bats and will take a walk. And maybe the biggest thing is that there is no fear when he gets to two strikes. With two strikes, he knows who he is.”

In his first full pro year in 2010, he had 192 hits, the most of any player in all the minor leagues while playing for Class-A High Desert. He started this year at Double-A Jackson and was hitting .312 before being moved up to Triple-A Tacoma. He was even better with the Rainiers, hitting safely in all 12 of his games before getting called up.

And he’s been at his best lately, with a combined .397 batting average from June 1 until now, giving him a .329 average as a minor leaguer.

The bar at third base hasn’t been set very high. If Seager can clear it, the Mariners can hardly help but be better for it.


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