|Thursday, June 19
Updated: June 23, 5:57 PM ET
Mariners lead way, but don't count out Angels
By Joe Morgan
Special to ESPN.com
Surprise -- the Seattle Mariners have the best record in baseball (48-22).
Two years ago, the Mariners took the major leagues by storm, winning an MLB-record 116 games (tying the 1906 Cubs). Last year, they challenged for the postseason but fell short.
This year, with a new manager (Bob Melvin) and veteran players who are a year older, I didn't expect the Mariners to be setting the pace for all of baseball. But that's exactly what they've been doing. And they've been winning the old-fashioned way -- with pitching, defense and timely run production.
Strong starting pitching, an excellent bullpen and great defense will take you a long way. Starters Jamie Moyer, Joel Pineiro and Gil Meche have led the way. On offense, the Mariners are getting hits in clutch situations while featuring the hit-and-run, the sacrifice bunt and the sacrifice fly. This is in contrast to the Toronto Blue Jays, who rely mainly on home runs. The Mariners are built for their large, expansive ballpark. Safeco Field allows you to build the type of team Seattle has.
The Mariners' series vs. the Atlanta Braves this past weekend typified their season. They scored five runs in the three games -- and took two of three to win the series.
Melvin has done a fantastic job in Seattle. The rookie manager has made sure his club plays fundamentally sound baseball. Defense is a premium for this team.
We know about Seattle's Gold Glove winners: right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, second baseman Bret Boone, first baseman John Olerud and center fielder Mike Cameron (who didn't win a Gold Glove last year but should have). But the Mariners also have quality defensive players in third baseman Jeff Cirillo, shortstop Carlos Guillen, left fielder Randy Winn and catcher Dan Wilson.
The greatest challenge to the Mariners this season might be the psychological hurdle of 2001, when they won those 116 games but failed to reach the World Series. And last year, they had a 3½ game lead on Aug. 10 but didn't make the playoffs. That history has to cause some doubt to creep into their minds. So despite their current 7½ game division lead over the Oakland Athletics, they have a long road ahead.
The A's face a similar psychological hurdle. Oakland has reached the postseason the past three years but has been eliminated in the ALDS each time. In fact, the only AL West contender that knows it can get over that hurdle is defending World Series champ Anaheim.
Rougher road for Angels in '03
Unlike the Mariners, the Angels have not displayed great pitching or defense in 2003. Both were essential ingredients of their championship season in 2002.
The Angels played poor defense for an extended period this season, and the pitching has been inconsistent. Starters Jarrod Washburn and John Lackey were excellent last year but have struggled in '03 -- especially Lackey, who is 4-6 with a 5.78 ERA (Washburn is 6-7 with a 3.61 ERA). Reliever Francisco Rodriguez, who became known as K-Rod in last year's World Series, hasn't lived up to his October accolades as evidenced by his 4.32 ERA. Reliever Brendan Donnelly, though, has been one of the few bright spots (0.50 ERA).
We need to remember that 2002 was a magical season for the Angels. So many factors fell in place or them to win the World Series. For instance, they led the league in hitting, getting guys on base and making things happen. This year, Anaheim is not as potent offensively. In fact, Garret Anderson is the only guy in the lineup who's hitting consistently (.316, 16 HR, 63 RBI).
The past three years, the AL wild card has come from the West. But that will be a rougher road to the postseason this year, with Boston, Toronto and New York vying for the playoffs in the NL East (it doesn't appear that an AL Central team will challenge for the wild card).
But it's a long season, and anything can happen. Like a round of golf, which has two nine-hole halves, baseball's season has two halves. The All-Star break is fast approaching, and we know that a great second half can make up for an iffy first half. So don't close the door on the Angels yet.
Tejada, A's eye turnaround
The A's offense also has troubles. The A's philosophy focuses on on-base percentage, but they have lots of .260 hitters. These guys have a good OBP, but to score runs you need to hit with runners in scoring position. Simply put, to score you need to drive runners in. That's been a problem for the A's.
Their struggles this season prove how valuable reigning AL MVP Miguel Tejada was last year. The star shortstop and third baseman Eric Chavez (to a lesser extent) carried Oakland in '02. But this year Chavez is struggling against lefties (.152, .250 overall), while Tejada is struggling in general (.219). The contract year probably hasn't helped Tejada, who will be a free agent after the season.
Rookie manager Ken Macha has a different personality than Art Howe, who was able to get the most out of his club. So far, Macha has not gotten the same results as Howe, although the A's have a good enough record to lead the AL Central. Give Macha time to put his stamp on the A's. Actually, I expected Melvin and the Mariners to be in a similar situation. It usually takes time for a manager to develop his style and make his mark on a team.
Clemens' cap flap: Why?
Meanwhile, I'm surprised that Clemens made an issue over the cap he wants to wear in the Hall of Fame (Yankees over Red Sox). He isn't eligible for the Hall until he's been retired for five years, anyway. Why make an issue of it now? A lot can happen between now and then.
Chat Reminder: I'll answer your questions in an ESPN.com chat Friday at 10:45 a.m. ET.
An analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan won back-to-back World Series with the Reds. He contributes a weekly column to ESPN.com.