SPORTS: When outs no longer are in

SO MUCH FOR the out being in.

The big talk around Major League Baseball this spring was all about how defense and pitching were the new winning elixir in the post steroid era.

Seattle Mariners fans were waving the flag as much as anyone after general manager Jack Zduriencik built his entire team on the premise this winter.

ESPN the Magazine even devoted its season preview cover story to the Mariners — cleverly titled “What’s In are Outs” — and their defensive-minded approach.

Dr. Z’s decision to sign weak-hitting but slick-fielding first baseman Casey Kotchman over keeping Russell Branyan’s power bat was just one exhibit in the master plan.

Three months later, and the good doctor might be looking for a new prescription.

Seattle’s defense hasn’t been all that great, and the hitting has been even worse . . . much worse.

Just how bad, you ask?

The Mariners have the least hits, runs, home runs, and doubles of any team in the American League.

Yikes! Methinks those aren’t the sort of outs Dr. Z was aiming for.

Pitch and field all you want — and it should be noted that Seattle pitchers have the third-lowest ERA in the AL — there’s no getting around hitting as bad as that.

Hence the AL’s third-worst record and Dr. Z’s subsequent back track trade last week reacquiring Branyan from the Cleveland Indians.

As it turns out, success in the AL still requires a lineup with some punch.

True, we have seen two perfect games in the majors (one in the AL) this year (or three if you count out umpire Jim Joyce’s now infamous call in Detroit).

And true, power numbers continue to drop.

But that hasn’t changed the fact that having a number of solid sticks is still a big part of the AL equation.

What else do expect from a league that doesn’t allow its pitchers to bat?

Just look at the standings in today’s scoreboard.

Four of the AL’s top five in team OPS (on-base and slugging percentage added together) belong to the top four records in the league: Boston, New York, Texas and Minnesota.

And the other team in the top five (Detroit) finds itself solidly in the AL Central race.

Not surprisingly, Zduriencik is now “looking for a big bat” in any trade involving ace left-handed pitcher Cliff Lee.

Give the man some credit. He learns from his mistakes.

Now if he could only take back his decision to let Adrian Beltre (he of the .934 OPS) walk in lieu of signing Chone Figgins . . .

Schubert’s six

Here are MLB’s top six teams heading into the second half of the season:

• 6. San Diego Padres — Consider this a default selection only because A) St. Louis has yet to hit its stride, B) Ditto Philadelphia and its injured lineup and C) the L.A. Dodgers and Colorado Rockies are lurking in the NL West.

I simply can’t believe a team, even with San Diego’s pitching staff, can win its division with only one imposing bat (Adrian Gonzalez) in its lineup.

• 5. Tampa Bay Rays — A recent June swoon has me a little hesitant to put the Rays here, but they simply have too much of everything to be ignored.

The sad part: Either the Rays or one of two teams listed ahead of them in this column space won’t even make the playoffs because of the division they are in.

• 4. Texas Rangers — Vladimir Guerrero’s rebirth, and Josh Hamilton’s consistent contributions, have made this team an offensive machine.

If the team’s pitching doesn’t wilt under August’s blazing heat in Texas (a bigger if that you might think), the Rangers should take the AL West.

• 3. Boston Red Sox — Beltre’s new home would’ve been placed a little higher if not for all the injuries that are mounting up.

If Josh Beckett ever finds himself this summer, the Red Sox will be a tough out in October.

• 2. Atlanta Braves — If not for a slow start (Atlanta was 9-14 in April) the Braves would be sitting pretty comfortably in the NL East.

The Braves have good, but not great, pitching and hitting. That might be enough to hold off the New York Mets and Philly’s injury-riddle lineup.

• 1. New York Yankees — Could it be anyone but the defending champs?

Sure, the Yanks just lost 2-of-3 to the Mariners, but they still have the majors’ best record, one of its most potent lineups and a deep pitching staff . . . as much as I hate to admit it.

________

Matt Schubert is the outdoors and sports columnist for the Peninsula Daily News. His column regularly appears on Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at

[email protected]

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