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Seattle off to great start with rookie skipper

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Mariners opened the season hearing a lot of pointed questions.

Aren't they too old? Will they have enough pitching? And has this team missed its best opportunity to reach the World Series?

Rookie manager Bob Melvin has provided plenty of fresh answers, though, because the scene in Seattle is familiar. The Mariners lead the AL West and they're jockeying with Atlanta for the best record in baseball.

"I expected us to be here if we stayed healthy," second baseman Bret Boone said. "I knew how good we are and what we're capable of doing."

At 48-23 entering a three-game weekend series at San Diego, the Mariners have won eight of their past 12 games. They went 11-1 on a recent road trip to four cities, and they've posted nine shutouts — best in the majors.

But it's not as though something is unusual this year at Safeco Field. Seattle has won 300 games in the past three seasons, a 61.7 winning percentage that is baseball's best since 2000.

"Last year was a freaky year," Boone said. "We played as badly as we did and still won 93 games. That speaks to the quality of people we have in here and that we know how to win."

Melvin has recognized it, too, since the day he succeeded Lou Piniella. The new boss insists he's done nothing extraordinary, simply managed the games, and the sense around the clubhouse is that things are normal.

"This team has a history of success," Melvin said. "They're used to it."

There's a big difference, though, in the managerial style now that the colorful Piniella makes out the lineup in Tampa Bay.

Piniella was infamously emotional, throwing bases to protest umpires' calls and often challenging his players. The bookish Melvin is comfortable in the background, and he's more likely to pat a struggling hitter on the back.

"I told them in spring training, 'Just prepare the way you always have,"' Melvin said. "This team has always gotten out of the gate well. It's a veteran club. From that standpoint, they've made it easy on me."

Listen to the players, and it's been a smooth transition on their end as well.

"Bob has been awesome," designated hitter Edgar Martinez said. "He's been great to work with every single day. He does a great job of communicating with players and letting us play."

Infielder Greg Colbrunn joined the Mariners this spring after four seasons in Arizona, where Seattle's front office discovered Melvin. He had spent the past two years as bench coach with the Diamondbacks.

"You knew Bob would make a good manager because of the way he handles people," Colbrunn said. "Everyone likes him. The way he was able to put out fires, I think they miss him over there. But he's here now." -->

Besides adding Melvin, the Mariners improved their pitching. A stable rotation has emerged as right-handers Gil Meche and Ryan Franklin have augmented established starters in Freddy Garcia and Joel Pineiro.

If that wasn't enough, 40-year-old Jamie Moyer is making a strong bid for an All-Star game appearance. He won seven straight over one stretch.

"Last year, we struggled in the 4 and 5 spots," reliever Jeff Nelson said. "The year before, even through we won 116 games, we had a solid 4 but the fifth guy wasn't really there.

"Now the way we're pitching, it's tough for teams to come in and get a break from our starters," Nelson said. "Hitters know they can't relax."

Starters are working deep, too, going at least seven innings nine straight times through this week's four-game series against Anaheim. The bullpen, despite injuries to closer Kazuhiro Sasaki, hadn't allowed a run in eight straight games.

Ichiro Suzuki is taking off after a slow start. During a just-concluded 10-game homestand, Suzuki hit .475 (19-for-40) with two home runs, two triples, seven runs, three RBIs and four stolen bases.

All of Seattle's pitchers are confident in the defense, which includes three Gold Glove winners from last season in Boone at second base, John Olerud at first and Suzuki in right field.

The outfield is exceptional, patrolling every corner of spacious Safeco Field and robbing hits from opposing hitters. Suzuki plays right, Mike Cameron is in center and newcomer Randy Winn in left.

"We're fortunate. We have three center fielders out there," Melvin said.

They've also got somebody to tie the package together. Melvin's easygoing approach has blended well with an established core.

"We felt we had a good team," Martinez said. "We were all very positive coming out of spring training. We knew we'd be playing well and winning games, and that we'd have a great season."

Of course, it's only June. The Mariners realize they've got to make this success continue through September.

"It's going to be a battle," Boone said. "We still have a ton of games to play in the division. We know it's going to be a long season. We just need to keep winning games and winning series."

Right now, though, Seattle is on track for another remarkable summer. When it comes to identifying one of the most obvious reasons, Anaheim Angels manager Mike Scioscia points to Melvin.

"A lot of the credit has to go to Bob," Scioscia said. "When expectations are high, it's hard sometimes to stay within what you're trying to accomplish. He's done a good job of it."