SEATTLE — 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 Seattle Mariners.
“Not at all,” Smoak said.
It’s a fair question because the Mariners had just completed their first sweep of the season by beating the Los Angeles Angels, 4-3, on Sunday.
This recent homestand was a boon for Seattle’s bats. The Mariners averaged 6.9 runs a game, a burgeoning figure for a franchise that has struggled to find offense the past three years.
“A big win for us, especially going into the break,” Seattle 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 success. 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 to send them back.
The sweep of Los Angeles pieced together all these 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 that pushed his hitting streak to 15 games. He would come around to score on a Mike Zunino sacrifice fly to right field.
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,” 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 starting pitchers Joe Saunders and Felix Hernandez on Friday and Saturday.
The bullpen was also better. Tom Wilhelmsen picked up his 19th save with a 1-2-3 ninth inning and appears to pushing his June demons — complete with a 10.97 ERA — back into the closet.
Michael Saunders’ two-run homer to right in the second inning pushed the club’s record streak of homering in consecutive games to 22.
The Mariners wasted a chance late in the fifth inning, when they failed to score despite runners on second and third and no one out, but Ibanez’s double earlier in the inning had pushed home the fourth run of 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 two 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.
Smoak’s single may have been his most impressive hit of the day.
The switch-hitter stood in on the left side of the plate and flipped a single to left field after fighting back from a 1-2 count. He is hitting .386 in July.
But the reality is even with a three-game sweep, the Mariners are 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.