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Originally published Monday, May 18, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Don Wakamatsu's Mariner Way puts attention on details

Radical change has come to Seattle this season. The lazy, laissez-faire days of the past are gone. The hack-and-hope style of hitting is...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Radical change has come to Seattle this season. The lazy, laissez-faire days of the past are gone. The hack-and-hope style of hitting is history.

The mess in aisle 2008 is getting cleaned up. Mistakes are being addressed, instantly, when the timing is right.

In the fourth inning of Saturday night's loss to the Boston Red Sox, with Russell Branyan on third, nobody out the infield in and starter Josh Beckett looking wobbly, Wladimir Balentien swung at Beckett's first pitch and hit a hard, one-hop ball to short.

It was the beginning of the end for a Mariners rally, and when Balentien returned to the dugout, manager Don Wakamatsu had one question for him, a question that is becoming more and more familiar to Mariners hitters: "Was that the pitch you were looking for?"

Slowly, sometimes painfully so, these Mariners are learning a new way to play.

Wakamatsu and his staff are teaching this team, "The Mariner Way." They are radically changing the way the players think baseball, introducing them to the 21st century game.

Wakamatsu is emphasizing and re-emphasizing the importance of fundamentals. He is demanding his young players take what he calls "a more intellectual and less emotional approach to the game."

He wants hitters doing a better job of understanding situations. Who's on the mound? What's their pitch count? Who's warming up in the bullpen? He wants them working the count.

"The definition of a good hitter is having the confidence to hit with two strikes," Wakamatsu said.

Wakamatsu wants his players studying the game, understanding their positioning on defense. He wants his catchers controlling the opposition's running game.

This is the Mariner Way, and it will be bequeathed to the next generation. It will be taught throughout the farm system. It will become a sustainable philosophy, from the rookie league to the big leagues.

This season the M's will take two steps forward, then one-and-a-half backward. It's trial and error.

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In Sunday's 3-2 thriller-win over Boston, Balentien made a mental mistake, walking off second base after he thought Rob Johnson's sixth-inning sacrifice bunt had been ruled a foul ball. Balentien was thrown out. A rally died.

And in the second inning, shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt botched a double play, pulling Ronny Cedeno off second and leading to Boston's first run.

But the bullpen — Sean White, Mark Lowe, David Aardsma — was sharp, buying time until Franklin Gutierrez slashed a two-out, walkoff single in the ninth.

It was a resilient win, a small step forward for The Mariner Way.

"We're building a belief system," Wakamatsu said.

There is more attention to detail on this team than on any since 2001; maybe even more attention to the science and seriousness of the game than any Mariners team ever.

Wakamatsu wants his pitchers understanding that the location of their pitches is more important than the velocity. He says location is 99 percent of pitching in the 21st century. Location. Location. Location.

"We want our players thinking on their feet," Wakamatsu said. "We want to give them the freedom and not dictate everything to them. Let them figure things out at the time they're happening."

He is trying to break long-existing bad habits. It is a Herculean project.

Wakamatsu talks daily with bench coach Ty Van Burkleo and hitting coach Alan Cockrell, making sure they impress upon young hitters that on-base percentage, not batting average, is the most important statistic.

"We talk a lot about passing the torch," Wakamatsu said, meaning taking a walk and giving the next hitter an opportunity to drive in a run.

This season players are asked to be more accountable. Take Betancourt, for instance. Every Mariners manager since 2006 has asked him to be more selective at the plate. Wakamatsu is demanding it.

"I think he realizes he's got to change," Wakamatsu said. "Yuni can be the poster child for a selective hitter. He's one of the most talented hitters and hand-eye-coordinated hitters we have."

Betancourt was benched for the final two games against Texas last week. In a meeting with him, Wakamatsu circled all of the important hitting statistics — on-base percentage, number of pitches faced in an at-bat. Batting average wasn't one of them.

On Friday night against Boston, Betancourt took 10 consecutive pitches. He smiled Sunday morning and admitted he'd never taken 10 straight pitches in a game in his life. He walked twice in that game and homered Saturday.

A lesson taught. A lesson learned.

The new Mariner Way.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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