CINCINNATI — The Mariners have dealt with more than their share of angst, misery, recrimination and criticism this season, just like in the ones that preceded it.
It’s no wonder, then, that they are seizing upon an encouraging road trip for a healthy dose of optimism and good cheer.
“Winning is just so much fun,” reliever Tom Wilhelmsen said. “It’s just so much better than losing. I know it’s a stupid thing to say, but everyone’s in such a better mood. It’s the best. Hopefully, we can get more of it.”
The Mariners defeated the Reds, 3-1, on Sunday to win their second series in a row on this trip — the first time all year they’ve won back-to-back series on the road.
And they did it against two formidable teams. The Rangers and Reds were in the playoffs last year and appear headed back this season.
“It’s a real good trip,” manager Eric Wedge said. “It’s the big leagues, man. You play Texas on the road, a team that’s won 50-some games. And Cincinnati on the road, same thing. You’ve got 30, 40,000 fans here a night, you’re into July, and you know it gets more real when you get into July.
“You’d have liked to have won one more, but you don’t get greedy this time of year. You work hard to win series. Our guys fought hard, and played pretty good baseball.”
Granted, the four wins in six games still left the Mariners 10 games under .500, so it’s not quite time for pennant fever. But Wedge believes the blend of youth and veterans that has sparked them on this trip bodes well for more prosperous times ahead.
“The younger guys are learning, the older guys have really settled in,” he said. “It’s always been a nice dynamic back and forth with that. But what’s fun to see is the light going off with some of these younger guys. That goes a long way, because the veteran guys that are healthy and playing have been producing.”
Of course, the other dynamic at play with the Mariners is that solid production by those veterans could hasten their departure at the trade deadline.
Left-hander Joe Saunders certainly has been amping up his trade appeal by working into the seventh inning in seven of his last eight starts. He was outstanding against a very tough Reds’ lineup in hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark, limiting them to six hits and one run in seven innings. Saunders won two games on the trip and allowed just two earned runs in 13 2/3 innings.
“I was working with Carl (Willis, the pitching coach) in the bullpen on my sinker,” Saunders said. “It’s very key in this ballpark to keep the ball down, obviously.”
The Mariners stacked eight left-handed hitters against Reds starter Bronson Arroyo, but Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker said, “It wasn’t their left-handed hitting that hurt us today, it was their left-handed pitcher.”
But Saunders needed two big left-handed swings to provide the runs he needed. One came in the first inning from Nick Franklin, who had been good-naturedly needled by teammates for missing Saturday’s game because of a bruised knee. On a 1-2 pitch from Arroyo, he belted his sixth home run, marking the 15th straight game the Mariners have homered, and the third straight time they’ve done so in the first inning.
“They jumped us early in all three games,” Baker said. “That’s what I’ve urged my guys to do, especially when you have the first at-bat, you can draw the first blood.”
Franklin said he was provided leg weights by athletic trainer Rick Griffin to use between innings to keep his leg from stiffening.
“It’s doing OK,” he said. “It’s workable, and hopefully it will get better in the next few days.”
But Wedge is not inclined to keep him out of the lineup any more.
“That’s why you work hard and wait for the lineup to try to get him in there because something like that might happen,” he said. “It gets you going right away. Sometimes it’s a good thing when the guys give you a hard time.”
The other big hit was provided by Justin Smoak, a two-run, opposite-field homer off Arroyo with two outs in the third. That came after Arroyo had struck him out in the first inning.
“The first time up, he threw me one that came out of the sky,” Smoak said. “I was just trying to get a pitch up, a pitch I could drive. I was able to put a good swing on it.”
The Reds got one back off Saunders in the seventh, but Charlie Furbush and Wilhelmsen each worked perfect innings to close out the win. Wilhelmsen needed just five pitches to wrap up his 18th save, and his second on this trip after an extended break from the closer’s role.
“We are building momentum right now,” Furbush said. “Once we get back home we have to keep it going and not let our foot off the gas. Everything is coming together — pitching, hitting and defense. I think it’s going to work out well.”