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Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.

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April 22, 2008 8:18 AM

More than just Happy Felix Day

Posted by Geoff Baker

OK, OK, I borrowed some of today's headline from countless other websites. But seriously, what's not to be happy about if you're a Mariners fan? The last time Felix Hernandez took the mound, in Oakland, he threw a complete-game. Got to be happy about that.

There are a few other things worth noting if you are a fan of this team. Or, even if you're looking for signs to see whether this 10-10 club is legit. Hernandez has gone seven innings or more in three of his starts already. But he is not even the staff leader in that department. Carlos Silva has gone seven or more innings on four occasions, Jarrod Washburn and Miguel Batista once each. (Originally, I'd written that Washburn had two, but it was only one).

That makes nine starts of seven or more innings by Seattle starters. Want to know how long it took the 2007 M's to notch that many? They didn't get their ninth such start until May 27. Yes, that's right. This year's team is five full weeks ahead of last year's pace.

So, does it really matter? You'd better believe it. When a starter goes seven innings, it enables a team to use its bullpen in defined roles. The setup man and situational lefty can go in the eighth inning, the closer in the ninth. The M's have yet to take full advantage of this because all of their top bullpen arms were either injured or imploding the first few weeks. Brandon Morrow is now back and slowly working his way into form, Ryan Rowland-Smith has usurped Eric O'Flaherty as the situational lefty and J.J. Putz should be re-activated off the disabled list today.

Given all that, a .500 record is not the worst possible outcome.

Oh wait, I forgot about Erik Bedard. Interesting that he does not have a single one of those seven-inning starts. And he's the guy who, historically, was the most able of any of Seattle's starting five of going at least seven. That, for me, is the most intriguing part about the 2007 rotation. It is obviously vastly improved, and not just at the top end. Silva's addition has stabilized the middle, Hernandez has taken a step forward (so far) on the top end, Washburn is pitching better than last year and Batista, if he's right about discovering a new way to go deeper in games, could provide the biggest surprise of all at age 37.

Throw a healthy Bedard in that mix? You can see the possibilities.

But for now, at least, the M's have weathered a severe early-season injury storm and offensive rollercoaster mainly because of the starters. Remember, the bullpen has already blown two games the M's were leading in entering the ninth. If not, this is a 12-8 team.

Last year's crew did deliver plenty of so-called "quality starts'' of at least six innings and three earned runs or less allowed. But still not as much as the M's have seen this season.

So far, the Mariners have 11 such outings, with Bedard contributing two of them. Last year, it took until May 2 for the M's to reach that total. So, they are more than a week ahead of that pace. But again, while "quality starts'' are OK, get too many of the six-inning variety and the bullpen is still being taxed. Last year, the M's had five "quality starts'' of seven or more innings among their first 11 overall. So far, this year's team has eight such starts in their first 11.

It might not sound like much, but it all starts to add up. The more games where relievers can be used in set-roles, where eighth-inning relievers don't have to come into a game in the sixth or seventh innings, the less wear and tear you're liable to see down the road. Considering how last season ended up, it's a welcome trend indeed for a squad with designs on contending for a playoff berth. These are not just innings being delivered. They are quality innings.

Let's compare the M's to the Angels so far:

7+ inning starts

Mariners -- 9
Angels -- 7

7+ inning quality starts

Mariners -- 8
Angels -- 6


6+ inning quality starts

Mariners -- 11
Angels -- 11

Yes, I know. The Angels are missing John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar. From what I heard in Anaheim last weekend, Escobar is likely done for the year. Lackey should be back towards the end of May. But remember, the M's haven't really had a healthy Bedard yet, either. So, that's a 1-to-1 sawoff. This could be a very interesting race.

With Seattle's full bullpen unit finally rounding its way back to normal, these seven-inning outings should prove more useful each day. To answer a question below, when Putz comes back, I could see Roy Corcoran getting sent down. Now, if only the team could get some hitting from its RF and DH spots...



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