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Unsung hero McLemore sparks Mariners on field and off


Special to ESPN.com

August 18

It's not enough to win at a pace that conjures up memories of the '98 Yankees. "Everywhere we go we're hit with the idea that if we don't win the World Series, in some way this season is a failure," says Mark McLemore. "Then we hear how we're not built for the postseason."

This has been an unforgettable ride for the Mariners. Lou Piniella admits the club "defies customary baseball logic because we don't have a lot of power at the infield or outfield corners." They are, of course, a team whose first five positions in the order fit, from Ichiro's intrepid energy out of the leadoff spot to McLemore's speed, offense and willingness to take pitches for Ichiro in front of Edgar Martinez. Like the Yankees, they are a team well-conceived, from regular parts to players who understand and accept their roles and play with respect for one another. Like the Yankees, their bullpen depth is carefully structured.

Ichiro has been a phenomenon, Edgar is Edgar, Bret Boone has been superlative, offensively and defensively. Yet if you're around the team that allowed three Hall of Famers to leave in three years only to rise to this astounding level, you appreciate just how important McLemore is. "I'm not sure you can't argue that he's our real MVP," says Jamie Moyer.

The raw numbers are fine, with a .392 on-base percentage and 33 steals. But Mark McLemore is a lot more than numbers. "He is close to our most valuable player, or person," says Piniella. Lou has a thing every day where he asks McLemore where he's going to play. "The point is that he's played second, short, third, left and right and played them well," says Piniella. "So wherever we want to rest someone, Mac plays there. If you'd ever told me he could play short? I'd have laughed. But at the end of spring training we were playing an exhibition game in El Paso and I told my coaches that since we really didn't have a utility infielder who could play short, I wanted to give him a chance. Well, the first four balls in the game were hit to him and he's done a helluva job there whenever we play him there.

"He takes pitches for Ichiro in the two-hole, he bunts when we need a bunt, he hits behind runners when we need that," adds Piniella. "But maybe most important, he brings something to our clubhouse every day. He's an unbelievable force and influence, every day."

McLemore never stops running, or talking. "If I see some guys are a little down, I get on them," McLemore says. "I'm the one who can say things that have to be said, as well. I look at it as if it's important to bring something to the clubhouse every day."

Asking managers, coaches, players and front office people, one gets a lot of names of versatile, underappreciated energy/character guys: Luis Sojo, Robin Ventura, Denny Hocking, Kevin Millar, F.P. Santangelo, Shawon Dunston, Frank Menechino, Terry Shumpert, David Eckstein, Super Joe McEwing, Paul LoDuca (although he's now nearing star status), Craig Counsell, Sandfrog Scott Spiezio. But no one matches McLemore for all his brings the Mariners.

And while McLemore and most of the Mariners believe that they are flawed -- they could use a lefty or righty bat off the bench for the postseason (unless Jay Buhner can adapt to that role) -- they indeed are built for the playoffs. "People forget that our series with the Yankees came down to two at-bats between David Justice and Arthur Rhodes," says one player. Indeed, if Rhodes gets Justice out both times, Seattle, without the injured Moyer, goes to the World Series. Justice, who is considered by McLemore as one of "the great clubhouse presences in the game," twice nailed Rhodes in the late innings with game-deciding hits, something the M's players don't believe will happen again.

What they believe is that they have the legit No. 1 starter in Freddy Garcia, and that their other starters can get them to the deep, power bullpen. "Because we don't have a lot of power and don't blow people out," says Piniella, "most of our games are playoff games. One run or tied into the seventh and later." They had a 21-10 record in one-run games entering the weekend.

"What we also have is the defense," says Piniella. "We won't give away extra outs." What that has meant during the season is that with only one exception, Paul Abbott, Piniella has been able to keep his starters' pitch counts at 110 or lower. That keeps them fresh, and the lead will allow Piniella to skip a turn with each starter the first half of September to keep fresh. A further point: the fact that the defense does not get pitchers into extra-out situations with men on base lowers the number of pressure pitches, which Orel Hershiser has always maintained are the tiring pitches that starters have to throw.

"This is a team," says Boone. "If people think it is a fluke, fine. It's not, but we know we have to keep proving ourselves, and we're certainly not afraid to have to go do that every day."

Afraid is something this team will never be, because Piniella never manages like he's afraid to lose, and because of winners like Mark McLemore.

Waiver games
As the lists of players who did and did not clear waivers comes through, it is clear that there were an unprecedented number of claims. "The Braves claimed a ton," says one GM. "But why shouldn't they block?" In the case of the Mets, they claimed Shane Spencer to see if the Yankees would be interested in a deal, while several contenders, including the Yanks, were sorry Randy Velarde got blocked.

What gets lost so often at this time of the year is that every team puts almost all its players on waivers, be he Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra or Alex Rodriguez. Star players who obviously wouldn't be moved don't get claimed. Neither do the Greg Vaughns of the world, for fear that a claim could land Vaughn and thus be responsible for the $16 million he has coming to him in 2002-2003.

There are some interesting names who got through, including Bobby Higginson and Damion Easley of the Tigers, Joe Randa of the Royals, Jeff Cirillo, Larry Walker and Alex Ochoa of the Rockies, Derrek Lee and Kevin Millar of the Marlins, Raul Mondesi and Alex Gonzalez of the Blue Jays, Tim Salmon of the Angels, John Flaherty of the Rays and Juan Castro of the Reds. Mondesi ($24M in 2002-2003), Walker ($35M the next three years), Higginson ($26.4M the next three) and Salmon ($27.3M the next three) are all steep contracts that no one may want to touch. But there has been a little interest in Robin Ventura and Todd Zeile from the Yankees and Red Sox, respectively, despite their $8.25M and $6M obligations for 2002. The Yankees want the Mets to eat some of the money, and now are wondering if it's worth it with Scott Brosius due back in two weeks.

For all the brouhaha in Boston about all the stars that don't play, it is worth noting that Jose Offerman, Dante Bichette, Mike Lansing and Troy O'Leary all passed through unclaimed. All can be free agents at the end of the season, although Lansing and O'Leary have options that if not exercised cost the Red Sox $1.25M for the second baseman and $300,000 for O'Leary. Orioles Brady Anderson and Tony Batista cleared, to Baltimore's chagrin; they were patting themselves on the back when they claimed Batista, but now are looking for another third baseman and would love for someone to take Batista's $10.5M obligation for 2002-2003.

Free agent games
Speaking of prospective free agents, one AL executive says, "no potential free agent has helped himself more this season than (the Dodgers') Terry Adams. The move by Jim Tracy and Jim Colborn to make him a starter was brilliant, and because he's pitched so well and can start or reliever, he may get more inquiries than anyone out there."

What helps Adams is that there likely won't be many other starting pitchers on the market: Chan Ho Park, Jason Schmidt, Pete Harnisch, Aaron Sele, Sterling Hitchcock, Pedro Astacio, David Wells, David Cone, Hideo Nomo, Chuck Finley, Kevin Tapani, John Burkett.

As for free agent pitchers whose value has taken a beating, Dave Burba (6.32 ERA) would probably be numero uno.

Youngsters proving their merit
When Gerry Hunsicker brought up 21-year old Carlos Hernandez this week from Double-A Round Rock, the Astros GM said, "This is the youngest pitcher I've ever brought up from the minor leagues. I realize that I've done a 180 from what I always believed in, but in the cases of Roy Oswalt and Tim Redding and now Hernandez, they have too much talent to not see what they can do."

Oswalt has been brilliant, following Wade Miller's takeoff. Redding came up, went back down, and Hunsicker says "he has gone and worked on what we asked him to do. The other night he threw 18 changeups; he normally threw four. He wants it, he learns and he's got great stuff. And Hernandez has tremendous ability, too. We need a left-hander, and he may get a start pretty soon."

A year ago, Hernandez was sent home to Venezuela for disciplinary and maturity reasons. He learned his lesson, and this year has blossomed.

"I used to think experience was vital," says Piniella. "But given the alternative, I'll take talent. Look at Garcia last fall."

"You can get a little carried away with the experience thing," says Oakland's Billy Beane. "We brought along three pitchers who have the talent and makeup and don't get rattled," he says of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. "You can look at the Angels (with Scott Schoeneweis, Jarrod Washburn and Ramon Ortiz) and say the same thing. That's why they're in this race." C.C. Sabathia has been the Indians' saving grace. The Dodgers were held together by Luke Prokopec and Eric Gagne.

Think back to the '85 Royals and the kids who led them to the World Series title, Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubizca and Danny Jackson. The Mets built to the '86 Series on the back of a kid named Doc Gooden. Boston now seems to insist that anyone in their rotation be old enough to run for president, but the last time they got to the World Series, it was on the arm of a Cy Young Award winner who turned 24 that August. The '91 Braves had two young starters named Glavine and Smoltz.

"You have to give a lot of credit to Bud Black in Anaheim and Rick Peterson in Oakland," says an AL GM. "Their young pitchers have developed, have gotten better. But you also have to look at some other teams like Toronto and Boston and wonder why their young pitchers have gotten worse."

When Dan Duquette took over the Red Sox in January 1994, he vowed to build an organization that would develop pitching. In that time, his administration has not signed and developed a nine-game winner. They have spent more than $8 million on international busts named Robinson Checo and Sang Lee, wasted No. 1 picks on three pitchers who no longer can be found (Andy Yount '95, Josh Garrett '96, John Curtice '97, and who combined won four games above A ball. Their 2000 top pick, college LHP Phil Dumatrait, has won one game in two years in the Gulf Coast League. Other youngsters like Tomo Ohka, Paxton Crawford and Brian Rose get to the majors, have brief success, then go backwards.

"Pitching is so expensive today, very few teams can afford to go out and sign topline pitchers," says Chicago's Ken Williams, whose organization has developed Mark Buehrle and is developing several others. "You have to develop a few quality young pitchers, or you have to have a $100 million payroll."

"One of the most important aspects other than teaching is the fear of failure that some clubs impart on their young pitchers," says one former All-Star major league pitcher who now works with minor leaguers. "You can't be afraid of a young pitcher failing."

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