YAKYU BY THE NUMBERS: Wakamatsu Has Shot for AL Manager of the Year

Some people around baseball might think that Don Wakamatsu puts David Copperfield and Harry Houdini to shame as far as magicians go.

After all, he must be using smoke and mirrors — as well as pulling a few rabbits out of his cap — to get a team that finished with the worst record in the American League in 2008 to seven games above .500 with only about a dozen games left in the season.

But if you were to ask Wakamatsu what’s the difference between this year’s success and last year’s failure, he’d say sleight of hand has nothing to do with it. It’s some entirely different.

Don Wakamatsu, Photo courtesy of Frank Abe

“Belief,” he said. “I think it’s a much closer-knit group. And a lot of that, for me, is what was established in spring training. We set out to establish all those things, the relations, the belief, the trust factor.”

At the end of last season the Mariners were a team in shambles, a team without trust. Bad free-agent signings (Richie Sexson, Carlos Silva and Brad Wilkerson) and arguably worse trades (Adam Jones/Erik Bedard, Shin-Soo Choo/Ben Broussard) had put management’s ability to run a ballclub — if not its sanity — into question. Furthermore, clubhouse chemistry was something akin to a shipwreck with much of the dissent aimed directly at the team’s only superstar, Ichiro Suzuki – a situation that any new manager would have to address.

After the season the Mariners cleaned house, getting a new general manager, firing all the coaches and, most importantly, hiring a new manager to right the sinking Mariners ship.

Wakamatsu and new GM Jack Zduriencik acted quickly, trading away team malcontents and acquiring players who added stability and leadership, including a former Mariner great.

“I think the acquisition of Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney… have been invaluable to this club, because they bring a patience and calmness to it, Wakamatsu told the Nichi Bei Weekly in an interview. “To have a strong veteran presence in the clubhouse is key.”

Wakamatsu’s emphasis on team unity paid off immediately when the Mariners bolted out of the starting gate and led the AL West as late as early June. Pitchers Felix Hernandez, Jarrod Washburn and David Aardsma led the way.

“The pitching has been phenomenal all season,” Wakamatsu said.

And the numbers bear out that statement. The team’s 3.90 ERA easily leads the American League.

Team attitude, which doomed the team last season, has been a team positive this season. That became very apparent last week when teammates mobbed Ichiro after he hit a sayonara home run off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.

“I tried to come here with an open slate. My own personal successes have always been built around communication and trust with players,” Wakamatsu said. “It’s our team, not just my team.”

However, clubhouse chemistry and the success of the pitching could only go so far and could not overcome the team’s lack of offense.

Simply stated, the Mariners can’t hit. Seattle has lowest batting average in the AL — remarkable because it includes Ichiro’s .353 average — as well as the fewest runs scored and RBIs.

This lack of offense makes their 79-72 record as of Tuesday even more impressive. How can a team that can’t hit and went 61-101 in 2008 be seven games over .500?

Not by sleight of hand, not by smoke and mirrors, but by the magic of Don Wakamatsu.

Race is on: Wakamatsu will get serious consideration for the AL Manager of the Year Award, but he’s up against some stiff competition.

The Rangers’ Ron Washington has his team ahead of the Mariners in the AL West and still contending in the wild-card race. The Rangers probably won’t catch Boston but Washington should get recognition.

Jim Leyland of Detroit has turned around a Tigers team that disappointed in 2008, with a 74-88 record. Although the Tiger have slumped of late, they still lead the AL Central by 2.5 games over the surging Twins. Detroit’s late season fade could hurt Leyland in the voting even if the Tigers win their division.

Joe Girardi’s Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time in what seems like forever in 2008. Girardi has the Yankees at 40 games over .500, with a 96-56 record — the best in baseball. The team’s success would seem to make him the odds on favorite.

Personal service: Kosuke Fukudome slumped horribly in June, hitting .169 for the month. So the call was made to Kyosuke Sasaki, his former hitting coach with the Chunichi Dragons. Fukudome responded to all this personal attention by hitting .307 in July and .287 in August. Of course, Sasaki had to return to Japan and Fukudome’s numbers began to slide. So far in September, Fukudome has hit .167.

Around the minors: Keiichi Yabu hasn’t caught on with a major league farm team since his release by the Giants in July. … Billy Sadler was released by the Giants on Aug. 10. About a week later, Sadler signed with the Astros but pitched in only one game before injuring his shoulder. He’s currently on the 60-day DL. … Shingo Takatsu ended the season with the Fresno Grizzles, finishing the season with a 0-0 record and a 7.11 ERA.

Kerwin Berk is the former assistant sports editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.

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