|This has been a very common scene since mid-July. (Getty Images)|
On July 15, the Seattle Mariners were 37-53, holding off the Minnesota Twins by two tenths of a percentage point (.411-.409) for the worst record in the American League. They trailed the Rangers by 17.5 games in the AL West and were 10 games back of the second wild-card spot.
Since then, amazingly, the Mariners have been among baseball's best teams. They've gone 24-11 and have crawled to within three games of .500. Better yet, the Mariners are within seven games of an AL wild-card spot entering a weekend series in Chicago. Also, a funny sidenote: They're ahead of the Red Sox by 1.5 games.
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So how is this happening? Further, can the Mariners keep it up?
For the former question, it's been mostly pitching. The Mariners have increased scoring from 3.8 runs a game to 4.1 runs a game since July 15. That's not very drastic, though it does help. But they're allowing almost a full run less (3.2 runs per game post-July 15, compared to 4.1 prior to that date).
They're also getting it done in close games, as they're 13-5 in games decided by two runs or less in this hot streak.
Finally, the Mariners have been beating up on bad teams. The way to positive-spin that is to say they're taking care of business as any good team should. Since July 15, they're 16-1 against the Royals, Blue Jays, Indians and Twins.
The answer to whether or not the Mariners can keep this up and become a legitimate playoff contender all boils down to how they play against stronger competition and if they can continue winning close games.
Winning close games is a combination of myriad factors. Timely hitting, good starting pitching, great bullpen pitching and luck all factor in. Will the luck continue to fall the Mariners' way with a much more difficult upcoming schedule? Here's how it breaks down:
Below .500 opponents (10): Twins (4), Red Sox (3), Blue Jays (3)
Above .500 opponents (27): White Sox (3), Angels (9), A's (6), Orioles (3), Rangers (6)
The good news is the Mariners can do some damage against other wild-card contenders like the Orioles, Angels and A's. The bad news is that's an absurdly rough slate.
A nice barometer for how the rest of the season could unfold will be the three-game series against the White Sox this weekend. They'll be facing a power-hitting first-place team in a hitter-friendly ballpark without getting a start from ace Felix Hernandez. A worthy playoff contender at least wins one, if not stealing two. A poser gets swept in blowout fashion.