Monday, May 31, 2010

MARINERS: Minnesota Twins Series Preview (May 31-June 3)

If the Mariners had offense early in the season, Doug Fister would likely be in early discussions for a chance at a Cy Young award. Instead, he’s simply in the discussions for helping the Mariners make an improbable comeback. He’s the first pitcher to take the weight of the Mariners’ season on his shoulder in a lengthy 4-game home series against the AL-Central-Leading Minnesota Twins.

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Coming off a series loss against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the Mariners still managed to gain half of a game in the AL West due to poor play by Oakland and Texas. Still, their season hangs on the brink, and if they slip to nine or ten games back, their season is effectively over. Even now, without climbing to at least five or six games back after the Minnesota series, it may already be too late.

So Doug Fister has his hands full.

Luckily, his 2.03 ERA is best in the AL, and his 3-2 record looks to be improving with the slowly awakening Mariners’ offense. He faces Francisco Liriano, who is pitching well this season in his own right. His 4-3 record is coupled with a 3.17 ERA and 59 strike outs.

The Twins are deep in starting pitchers, with 6-1 Nick Blackburn (4.28 ERA) starting game two against 3-2 Jason Vargas (3.12 ERA) and 6-3 Kevin Slowey (4.15 ERA) starting game three against 3-2 Cliff Lee (3.22 ERA). Game four sees struggling 2-4 Felix Hernandez (3.50 ERA) against 5-5 Carl Pavano (3.99 ERA).

All the starting pitching should feel relieved by the sudden upturn in offense. In April, they batted .240/.312/.342 while scoring 82 runs. In May, they maintained or raised slightly the averages to .238/.315/.354, but boosted the runs to 97.

Unfortunately, their bullpen has been struggling of late. Most recently, David Aardsma’s two blown saves against the Angels cost the Mariners a series sweep. The Twins, losing Joe Nathan to Tommy John surgery, were considered to the problem-team in the AL for closing. Instead, Jon Rauch has converted 12 of his 14 save opportunities.

Playing one of the strongest teams in the AL is not an easy spot for the Mariners to regain their season. Only three games into a 20-game streak of play without an off-day, the Mariners have started off poorly. This series is the point where the Mariners can decide whether they want a chance to play in October, or whether they’ll be sellers in July.

Reach M. Wend at