American Leagues Robinson Cano, of the Seattle Mariners, hits during the MLB baseball All-Star Home Run Derby, Monday, July 11, 2016, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
SEATTLE (AP) After the Seattle Mariners posted the biggest comeback in franchise history to win in San Diego 16-13 on June 2, they headed off to a series in Texas tied for the lead in the AL West.
There was a buzz and optimism about the club. They were playing better than expected, were more entertaining than expected and were giving credence to the idea that maybe the longest playoff drought in baseball could come to an end after 15 years.
Then the rest of June happened. And by the time the All-Star break arrived, the Mariners were 45-44, facing a nearly double-digit deficit in the division race as part of a season defined thus far by inconsistency.
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When Seattle's pitching was strong, the offense lagged. When the offense picked up, the pitching often faltered. The Mariners were powerful away from home early in the season, but lost 16 of 20 road games heading into the break. They swept the first place Orioles at home, but were also swept at home by the last place Angels and last place Twins.
That's not to say there weren't bright spots. Robinson Cano returned to All-Star form. Nelson Cruz has 23 home runs at the break. Korean slugger Dae-Ho Lee has been a pleasant surprise.
There are a number of reasons why Seattle has gone from legitimate contender in the AL West to now trying to get back into the playoff discussion. At the root of Seattle's struggles in June was the fragility of the roster created in the offseason.
While the makeover that general manager Jerry Dipoto undertook with the Mariners after taking over at the end of the 2015 season created a more competitive, more versatile roster, there is still a lack of depth that was highlighted by key injuries to center fielder Leonys Martin, shortstop Ketel Marte and ace Felix Hernandez.
Between May 22 and June 9, the Mariners defense was ailing with Marte and Martin sidelined. Seattle went 8-10 during that stretch and it was the beginning of the downward trend that saw the Mariners finish June at 10-18.
Hernandez, meanwhile, has been out since June 1 with a calf injury. Combined with other injuries, that left Seattle putting together a makeshift rotation for most of the last six weeks.
Not all lost is for Seattle. They are only five games back in the AL wild card race and after an eight-game road trip in late July the schedule becomes far more favorable.
Here are a few other things to watch for as Seattle enters the second half trying to climb back into contention:
FIND AN OUTFIELDER: The Mariners expected Nori Aoki to be their leadoff hitter and left fielder the majority of the season. But Aoki's struggles at the plate could not justify keeping him in the lineup. That's left Seattle's outfield rotation thin and in need of an experienced option in left field. That is likely the top priority for Dipoto prior to the trade deadline.
LAY OFF THE BULLPEN: Seattle's bullpen was taxed in the first half of the season, especially in June when the starting rotation struggled to pitch beyond five innings. The Mariners' relievers made a combined 248 appearances prior to the All-Star break and threw more innings than manager Scott Servais wanted. The overuse began to show in June during Seattle's swoon after the bullpen had been an area of strength the first two months.
GET THE ROTATION HEALTHY: Hernandez wasn't the only starter to find his way to the disabled list in the first half. Left-hander Wade Miley and young righty Taijuan Walker also landed there for short stints. Nathan Karns started in the rotation before getting demoted to the bullpen because of his struggles. Hernandez and Walker are expected to return shortly after the All-Star break and both need to rediscover the top form they showed in spurts earlier in the season.