SEATTLE — The last time the Seattle Mariners were in first place this deep into the season, the current hitting coach was the designated hitter, the current "Special Assistant to the Chairman" was hitting .352 at the top of the order, and the club won 93 games but missed the playoffs.
Yes, it has been a long time since Edgar Martinez and Ichiro Suzuki had the Mariners in contention like they are right now.
"We just love playing for each other right now," pitcher Marco Gonzales said. "We're all rallying around each other and it's a lot of fun to be out there."
The Mariners started Monday at 37-22 and with a one-game lead in the AL West, a position they haven't held this far into a season since late August 2003. That's nearly 15 years since the club has sniffed the clear air of the division lead outside the early stages of the regular season. An entire generation of Little Leaguers in the Pacific Northwest who look up to the likes of Nelson Cruz, James Paxton and Dee Gordon have never seen the Mariners in contention like this on the cusp of summer's arrival.
And it's not happening because the division is terrible — four teams are above .500 — but rather because Seattle is finding ways to win despite injuries and suspension. The Mariners are 15 games over .500. They lead baseball with 18 one-run wins. They're 6-0 in extra-inning games. Since Robinson Cano first broke a bone in his hand, and then was suspended for 80 games two days later for violating baseball's joint drug policy, the Mariners are 14-5.
But a reality check may be on the horizon.
"We've taken care of business so far to put us in this position and I think our guys are really looking forward to the next three weeks," manager Scott Servais said. "We'll find out how good we are."
The quality of Seattle's start shouldn't be diminished, yet it hasn't come against the elite of the American League. Seattle has played the majority of its games against teams with records below .500 as of the start of play Monday. They haven't seen Boston or the New York Yankees.
So Servais understood when he was asked about the Mariners' upcoming schedule. Beginning Tuesday, the Mariners play 15 of the next 19 games against Houston, Boston, the Yankees and the Angels.
"We're exactly where we should be. We've played well to this point," Servais said. "The teams we have coming up — and we talk about everybody looks at their schedule when it comes out, and during spring training, and we need to get off to a good start. And people say you've got this pocket here you're going to be on the road for a while or playing the tough teams in June or July, everybody has got those stretches in their schedule."
Last year at this time, Seattle was already 13½ games back in the division. They've reached first place despite an extensive injury list that goes back to spring training when top reliever David Phelps was lost for the season due to Tommy John surgery. Among the position players, there have been two oblique injuries (Ben Gamel and Mike Zunino), two ankles (Nelson Cruz and Ryon Healy), a hand fracture (Cano) and a fractured toe (Dee Gordon). All told, those six missed a combined 67 games due to injury.
Seattle is still a flawed team, especially without Cano in the lineup. In the 19 games since Cano went out, the Mariners have scored less than four runs 11 times. But the pitching staff has been solid with unexpected success from Gonzales and Wade LeBlanc, and Edwin Diaz leading the league in saves.
"We haven't had this run we've had here with all the close games and doing it the way we were doing," Servais said. "We had stretches where we'd win six out of seven, or we had the stretch a couple of years ago in September where we won eight or nine in a row. But this has been different in the fact that it's early in the season, we have a lot to play for, we have a lot of big games ahead of us. It's just a different feeling. I can't really describe it other than to say I love our team."