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Pirates, Mariners share same hope for better future

| Tuesday, May 7, 2013, 11:21 p.m.
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Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners looks on during an MLB game against the Toronto Blue Jays on May 3, 2013, at Rogers Centre in Toronto.

There is no bad blood, rivalry or even a history between the Mariners and Pirates. They are hardly neighbors, given Seattle's edge-of-the-earth locale. They are, in fact, barely acquainted. Tuesday night, they met for the first time at PNC Park since a three-game series in June 2004.

Since the Mariners' last visit (the clubs also played three games in Seattle in 2007), much has transpired for both franchises. Managers, general managers and players have come and gone but with relatively little to show for it until recently. The Mariners scraped together two winning seasons in that time. The Pirates have gone 20 years without doing it once.

But under recently new managers, the clubs also share hope. The Pirates won 57 games in 2010, 79 last season. The Mariners won 61 games in 2010, 75 in 2012. This is Pirates manager Clint Hurdle's third season, the second for Mariners skipper Eric Wedge. The Pirates are 18-14 after beating the Mariners, 4-1, Tuesday night. Seattle is 15-19 but had been the hottest team in the American League West, winning seven of 10 games while taking successive series from the Angels, Orioles and Blue Jays.

“We're right around the corner,” Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik said. He meant that figuratively. Little is around the corner from Seattle, the jewel of the Pacific Northwest a long plane ride from everywhere. That and the club's composition makes this a fairly anonymous bunch. Which is fine with veteran pitcher Joe Saunders.

“We love that,” he said. “We do our business, and it kind of stays under the radar. We don't ask for a lot of hype, a lot of press. We don't ask for all the BS and stuff like that, that comes with the notoriety other teams have. We like to show people what we can do and how we can do it.”

This is a homecoming for Zduriencik, who grew up in New Castle, graduated from California (Pa.) coached football at Clairton High School and worked as the Pirates' scouting director from 1991-93, the first two years of which are wistfully recalled as the good old days.

“The last winning year was '92,” he noted.

The clubs have obvious differences. Seattle plays in a larger market, has a larger payroll and will start in 2015 a 17-year cable deal worth $2 billion, according to published reports. But Zduriencik agreed there is some common ground between his present club and his former one. Both are relatively in the same place, trying to achieve the same goals in pretty much the same ways.

“We're a young big league club,” he said. “I can see similarities to Pittsburgh. We've got a superstar player, we brought in some guys who we think can help us get over the top, help the young guys grow and we've got a very healthy minor league system.”

Zduriencik's veterans include Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales, former Pirate Jason Bay and 40-year-old Raul Ibanez, back for a third time with the Mariners. But the core is a group of young players that includes center fielder Michael Saunders and third baseman Kyle Seager.

The Mariners rank second to St. Louis according to Baseball America's farm system rankings. Several of the top prospects are pitchers, including Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen, a pair of former first-round draft picks whose arrivals are being anticipated with the same fervor as Pirates fans yearning for Gerrit Cole and Jamison Taillon.

The superstar Zduriencik noted is, of course, right-hander Felix Hernandez, the 2010 Cy Young Award winner who recently signed a seven-year, $175 million contract extension. On Wednesday, King Felix will duel Pirates ace A.J. Burnett.

Nearly as good as Hernandez is 32-year-old Japanese right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma, but the rest of the starters and some of the relievers have been spotty. After dealing with injuries during spring training and the start of the season, the hitting was flimsy at first. In one stretch the Mariners scored 22 runs in 11 games. But it has since picked up, five hits against the Pirates notwithstanding.

“We've been streaky,” Bay, who played for the Pirates against the Mariners in 2004, said before the game. “We started off well, and by ‘well' I mean we won the first two games. Then we were kind of listless, like a lot of teams, trying to find ourselves. Then, all of the sudden, in the last week and a half we've put things together. I still don't think we've figured it out yet.”

It's a long season, as the Pirates who started out hot the last two years only to fizzle know only too well. Much can happen and probably will.

“But I know one thing,” Wedge said. “Our guys show up to play every day. Doesn't matter who we're playing, where we're playing, what the temperature is or how many people are in the stands. There's a lot of toughness in there, too. We believe in the length of the season, they trust in that, and they trust each other as teammates.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BCohn_Trib.

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