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Are M's headed for a breakthrough?

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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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ANAHEIM, Calif.

Catcher Kelly Shoppach said that a number of Mariners were talking on Tuesday, saying that if they had won their four-game series in Cleveland instead of getting swept, they would have been the talk of baseball, not the Indians.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But the Mariners arrived in Cleveland as winners of five of their last six series, with their only non-win being a two-game split in Pittsburgh. And they could not have come closer against the Indians, losing three of the four games in walk-off style.

If the Mariners resume winning, they can dismiss the Cleveland series as a fluke, a simple case of running into a hot team. Alas, the M’s lost their fifth straight game on Tuesday night, falling to the Angels, 12-0. They face the Angels again on Wednesday before returning home to face the Rangers, the team with the best record in the majors.

Who exactly are the Mariners? We may be about to find out. And if the answer is, “losing club,” general manager Jack Zduriencik might not return for a sixth season.

Yet, it was interesting that even after the Craziness in Cleveland, several of the team’s veteran newcomers spoke with confidence about the direction of the franchise — even though, as potential free agents, they might not be around for a breakthrough.

I’m not convinced that a breakthrough will occur this season, not when the M’s are only 20-26. But are the Mariners better? Yes, they are better. And their future looks promising, considering that their farm system ranks second in the majors, according to Baseball America.

The Mariners went from 61 to 67 to 75 wins in their first two seasons under manager Eric Wedge. Triple-A catcher Mike Zunino, infielder Nick Franklin and Double-A right-hander Taijuan Walker are among the prospects who could assume prominent roles in Seattle before long.

“We’ve got talent out the wazoo,” right fielder Michael Morse said, referring only to the current major league roster. “Now it’s just putting it together, finding ways to win.

“We’re in a good spot. We’re the underdogs of the division, the team people forget about. But that series with Cleveland — we fought them. It was a boxing match. I don’t think any other team would have fought them as hard.”

Added left fielder Raul Ibanez, “I think this team is on the verge of really good stuff happening. Going for the kill when you have it — that’s a process. But we’re really close. There is a lot of fight in here — a lot of fight.”

More important, there finally is some offense — not a ton, mind you, that would be too un-Mariners-like. But enough to where the M’s are averaging 4.29 runs per game in May, up from an American-League worst 3.28 in April.

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Let’s not get too giddy — the Mariners still are last in the AL in that department, and are on track to become only the second team in divisional play to finish last in its league in runs five straight seasons, according to STATS LLC. The last to do it was the 1971 to '75 Padres.

Want some more negative fodder? The Mariners are batting a major-league-low .211 with runners in scoring position. And while third baseman Kyle Seager is a star and center fielder Michael Saunders a keeper, questions persist about three other supposed cornerstones — catcher Jesus Montero, second baseman Dustin Ackley and first baseman Justin Smoak.

Montero is batting .208 with a .590 OPS, and his defense is far worse than his offense. Ackley, after raising his OPS from .354 on April 19 to .604 on May 4, is back down to .557. Both should be in Triple A.

Even Smoak, who entered Tuesday ranked second among AL first basemen in on-base percentage over the last 30 days, still does not look like anything close to a sure thing — he has only eight RBIs, the same number as Brendan Ryan, the Mariners’ light-hitting shortstop who does not play every day.

So, what’s to like? For starters, the 1-2 combination of Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, who rank third and fifth in the American League in ERA, respectively. The back of the rotation is much less trustworthy — Aaron Harang allowed seven runs in 3 2/3 innings on Tuesday night — but the bullpen is a strength, ranking fifth in the league in opponents’ OPS.

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Also, for what it’s worth, the vibe around the team seems improved, at least so far. Wedge preaches a blend of patience and accountability. Ibanez, who turns 41 on June 2, said the young players listen to advice from the veterans “more than anywhere than I’ve been in a long time.”

The problem is that Shoppach, Morse, Ibanez, designated hitter Kendrys Morales and outfielder Jason Bay all are potential free agents, so this whole thing could be fleeting — particularly if the Mariners stumble and Seattle again is viewed as a baseball gulag.

Wedge, naturally, takes a more optimistic view.

“They feel like they’re getting here at the right time. They feel like we can win now,” the manager said of the veterans. “There’s always a possibility that we can re-sign them, always a possibility that they want to be here, want to stay.”

Heck, why stop with the current players? If the Mariners start to show life, they might even become a practical destination for two potential free agents who hail from the Northwest — Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum — and others.

“We’re a very healthy organization right now,” Wedge said. “Are we there yet? No, we’re not there. But we’ve got the infrastructure to be a good team — a good team for a while.”

Fair enough, but losing clubs always should be viewed skeptically until they turn a corner. The Mariners are nearing the intersection of Progress and Regret. Crash or turn.

Tagged: Mariners, Giants, Raul Ibanez, Michael Morse, Tim Lincecum

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