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Seattle Mariners have the determined look of a champion team

Posted: Tuesday, May 07, 2002

The flowers of May are nothing but memories by October. Likewise baseball games. A sweep in the spring means little in the fall.

So it's easy to wink sagely and put down the Seattle Mariners' three-and-out rout at Yankee Stadium this past weekend. The Mariners did the same thing a year ago and where did it get them? Packing up glumly after the American League championship series when their season ended for the second straight year in New York.

This year feels different. This year, the Mariners have the look of a team that will go all the way.

If a club that won an AL record 116 games can get better, the Mariners did. They're better at the plate (thanks to the arrival and resurgence of Ruben Sierra), in the field (thanks to new third baseman Jeff Cirillo), and on the mound (thanks to the addition of James Baldwin and the possible coming-of-age of Joel Pineiro).

They may not win quite as many games -- though they're only a game off last year's torrid start -- but they're finally ready to take the next step into the World Series.

There are five months between now and then, and a million things could happen. A strike, for one. Injuries, for another. A once-in-a-lifetime season by the Boston Red Sox, for still another.

But the chances of a strike, as dumb as it would be for both sides, are probably less than 50-50. Injuries can strike anyone. And one of the best bets over the years has been that the Red Sox will fade gradually or flop dramatically. They may have the best record in baseball, but they've built that record on the backs of second-tier teams. As the season stretches out, look for the Red Sox to come down to earth and the Yankees to challenge for another division title.

There's always the possibility, too, of miracle seasons by the Minnesota Twins or Chicago White Sox, the former coming back from death by contraction, the latter missing from the World Series since they threw them in 1919.

All in all, though, the Mariners are the AL team to beat.

There are obvious ways to judge teams, and more subtle ways. A glance at the Mariners' batting order shows five .300 hitters and one career .300 hitter (Cirillo) edging up from a slow start. And that's with Edgar Martinez (.319 lifetime) a few weeks from returning after knee surgery on April 13.

The Mariners, who lead the majors in runs, can play small ball or long ball -- they had seven homers in a game against Chicago last week, when Mike Cameron homered four times and Bret Boone twice.

On a more subtle level, the Mariners find ways to make plays and jump on other teams' mistakes.

Take, for example, successive plays in the first inning against the Yankees on Sunday. First, after a leadoff hit by Alfonso Soriano, Cameron chased down a drive by Bernie Williams to left-center and made a leaping catch. Then, on a grounder up the middle by Derek Jeter, Pineiro stuck out his back foot for a kick-save and threw him out.

In the fifth, when Yankees right-fielder Shane Spencer booted Ichiro Suzuki's leadoff single to right, allowing him to reach second, the Mariners took advantage: Suzuki stole third and came home on Cameron's sacrifice fly.

Meanwhile, Sierra kept up his unlikely bid for an All-Star spot by boosting his league-leading average to .371 with two singles and a homer in the Mariners' 10-4 victory.

''I was born to play this game,'' Sierra said in his soft manner afterward. He was not boasting or sounding cocky. Rather, there was a genuine humility in his voice. He was saying, really, that he still wants to play this game, that he knew he had made mistakes in Oakland and New York, had alienated managers and taken a detour from superstardom, with stops in such baseball outposts as Atlantic City and Cancun.

Tony LaRussa once called him ''the village idiot.'' Joe Torre wrote in his book, ''Chasing The Dream,'' that Sierra was ''a spoiled kid who has no clue what baseball is all about.''

Now Sierra, 36, was saying he was sorry for the problems he made for himself. Sorry he tried to build up his muscles at the expense of his batting average. Sorry he called Torre a liar back in 1996 for not playing him more, and subsequently was traded away from a team that would win the World Series that season -- and three more since.

''Anything outside of Attila the Hun I think I can handle,'' Piniella said Sunday when asked about Sierra.

Whether it's been Piniella's handling or Sierra's humbling over the past few years, the result is the Mariners have a player who always had the potential to be a star -- and finally is performing like one.

That alone could make the difference in helping them win a pennant that has barely escaped their clutches the past two years.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org



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