Hair disheveled, side and knee wrapped in ice, Justin Smoak was sure of his answer when asked if the All-Star break was coming at a bad time for the Mariners.
“Not at all,” Smoak said.
It’s a fair question since the Mariners completed their first sweep of the season by beating the Anaheim Angels 4-3 on Sunday.
This recent homestand was a boon for Seattle bats. Seattle averaged 6.9 runs per game, a burgeoning figure for a franchise that has strained to find offense the last three years.
“A big win for us, especially going into the break,” manager Eric Wedge said. “It’s hard to win a series, it’s real hard to sweep. A lot of good things have happened here. Not just the last three days, the last two or three weeks. You can see where these guys are heading.”
Much of the first-half trouble for the Mariners has been a result of partial successes. The starting pitching would be good, but the offense struggled. The offense worked, then the bullpen flopped. Always a step forward, then a crowbar across the knees.
The sweep of Anaheim pieced together all facets. Rookies Brad Miller and Nick Franklin have added chutzpa to the top of the order. Raul Ibanez continues to clobber the baseball — he had an RBI double Sunday — and Justin Smoak and Michael Saunders have discovered grooves.
Kyle Seager has remained consistent, as represented by a fourth-inning single to left which pushed his hitting streak to 15 games.
Anaheim scored just six runs in the series. Hisashi Iwakuma (8-4) rebounded from five consecutive rocky starts to throw seven innings Sunday and allow three runs. He did, however, give up his 21st homer of the season. It’s a staggering number considering Iwakuma has allowed just 44 earned runs this year.
“(Sunday) overall I thought I had a better fastball, I had more life with my fastball,” Iwakuma said through interpreter Antony Suzuki. “That said, I was able to make an adjustment. I know I gave up one home run but overall I think I had better command than I’ve had the last couple of starts.”
Iwakuma’s strong outing backed those by Joe Saunders and Felix Hernandez to start the series.
The bullpen was also better. Tom Wilhelmsen picked up save 19 with a 1-2-3 ninth Sunday. He appears to pushing his June demons, when he had a 10.97 ERA, back into the closet.
Michael Saunders’ two-run homer in the second pushed the club’s record streak of homering in consecutive games to 22. They wasted a chance in the fifth with runners on second and third and none out when they failed to score, but Ibanez’s double had pushed home a fourth run on the day, which was narrowly enough.
“One through nine, we’re doing our job,” Michael Saunders said. “Getting runners in from third base, getting runners over. The biggest thing that was lacking, I felt like, in the first half, we were taking our walks, getting in scoring position, but we were missing the two-out hits.”
He and Smoak are examples of that. Saunders hit .297 in July after a dismal first three months. Smoak was on base three times Sunday with a double, single and a walk. The single may have been his most impressive hit of the day. The switch-hitter stood in on the left side and flipped a single to left field after fighting back from a 1-2 count. He hit .386 in July.
Though, the reality is even a sweep only pushed the Mariners to nine games under .500 at 43-52. They have a long road to undo the expansive damage of a middling first half.
“We continue to play like this in the second half, we’re a team to watch out for,” Michael Saunders said.