SEATTLE — It was late March near the backstop of a practice field in a corner of the Mariners’ year-round complex in Peoria, Ariz., that Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto voiced a concern circulating through the organization.
"I like our club," he said, "but we’re trying to change the culture here. I think guys are buying in to what we want to do. But I look at our early schedule, and it’s tough.
"What I’m hoping is we can keep our head above water for the first month or so. Not bury ourselves and have guys start to question what we’re doing. If we can avoid that…"
The Mariners are 21-13 as they open a three-game weekend series Friday against the Los Angeles Angels at Safeco Field. They sit atop the American League West Division. And they are surging with 16 victories in their last 22 games.
Every day seems to anoint a new hero to wear the "swelmet," a gift from a fan, Larry Andersen, who marked Star Wars Day (May 4 — May the Fourth be with You) by painting a Darth Vader helmet in Mariners colors.
The Mariners quickly adopted it as their touchstone and now share it in a joyous bit of ritualistic nonsense that transforms it into a unifying symbol of their shared goals and aspirations.
Chris Iannetta donned the swelmet Wednesday after hitting a walk-off home run in the 11th inning for a 6-5 victory over Tampa Bay. That was a game in which the Mariners squandered two leads and dodged some Rays’ threats in extra innings.
This is a club that is starting to believe.
"I would say everything is falling in place," second baseman Robinson Cano agreed. "Every day, it is somebody. Somebody different. All 25 guys are doing their part. It’s not just a few guys."
Cano is a big part, certainly. Healthy again after a disappointing 2015, he is batting .303 and leading the American League with 12 homers and the majors with 33 RBIs.
But his RBI count speaks to the shared contributions throughout the lineup. And Iannetta’s walk-off blast was the seventh game-winning homer this season that occurred in the sixth inning or later. Five players have at least one.
"Honestly, it’s the way it should be," Iannetta said. "If you lean on a couple of guys, you get one-dimensional."
The Mariners haven’t been in first place this late in a season since 2003, when they were also 21-13 through 34 games.
That was so long ago that hitting coach Edgar Martinez was still playing, Ichiro Suzuki was only 487 hits into a career that is now approaching 3,000, and Jamie Moyer was a kid at 40 with nearly 10 years remaining in his career.
The Mariners believe they aren’t yet clicking on all cylinders, either. First baseman Adam Lind, a key off-season acquisition, is struggling at .213 with one home run and just five RBIs in 89 at-bats.
Veteran outfielder Franklin Gutierrez is batting just .209 and didn’t get his first homer until earlier this week. Left fielder Nori Aoki, while better lately, remains far below his career norms in batting average and on-base percentage.
"Players will rise to their level," Dipoto said. "When Kyle Seager was hitting a dollar-fifty, you knew that he was going to get hot. These last two weeks, we’ve seen Kyle Seager.
"Nori Aoki is not going to hit .220. He’s better than that. Same with Adam Lind. Adam Lind will get hot. This guy was one of the 10 best hitters versus right-handed pitchers over the last three years.
"When the water rushes through the dam, it will rise."
For all that, Dipoto’s concern for the opening weeks wasn’t mere eyewash. ESPN’s Buster Olney crunched the numbers and declared the Mariners’ early schedule to be the toughest for any AL club.
Their first 31 games included 19 against teams that reached postseason a year ago. Six more came against opponents that finished last season with winning records.
"What I really like," manager Scott Servais said, "is how this team is coming together. I’ve said from the beginning, `Just be who you are.’ I think this is who we are."
The Mariners have already weathered adversity. After opening the season by winning two of three at Texas, they began their home schedule with five straight losses. That led to a players-only meeting.
"You just keep your head up,’ designated hitter Nelson Cruz said afterward. "Just be tough. Handle it like a man and go out there and do what you’re supposed to do. We are a good team, and I trust what we have as a team."
The next afternoon, Korean import Dae-Ho Lee hit a walk-off homer in the 10th inning for a 4-2 victory over Texas. That was the first of those seven game-winning homers in the sixth inning or later.
The Mariners are 19-7 since that point, which is the best record among AL clubs in that span.
"Now, are we going to lose four or five in a row again? Yes," Servias said. "That happens. But this is also the type of team that can win eight in a row. Because of our pitching. That’s the way you win series and put streaks together."
The Mariners, through Wednesday, led the American League with a 3.11 ERA. Their rotation, at 3.50, ranked third; and their bullpen, at 2.34, ranked second.
Servais likes his rotation so much that he dismisses the idea of skipping any of the five when an open date, like Thursday, presents that opportunity. The bullpen has weathered a series of injuries through a next-man-up mentality.
"Coming into the season," Dipoto said, "I think we thought our bullpen was better than everyone else did. We liked the mix. And now, it looks like we’re about to get a couple of guys back."
Right-hander Joaquin Benoit, the primary setup man, will throw a simulated game this weekend as the final test in his recovery from shoulder inflammation. Barring a setback, he should be activated early next week.
The Mariners believe lefty Charlie Furbush is finally showing real progress after biceps tendinitis and a slight rotator cuff tear sent him to the disabled list more than 10 months ago. He could return by the end of the month.
Still not ready to believe? You’re not alone. Failing to reach postseason for 14 straight years, the longest current drought in baseball, is a lot of baggage. Perceptions are slow to change.
Like many in Dipoto’s off-season organizational overhaul, Servais is in his first year with the Mariners. So when he went to lunch recently with some friends from a rival organization, it was jolt when he came to realize:
"They don’t respect us," he related. "Because we’re the Seattle Mariners, I guess we’re not supposed to be any good."
Servais paused a moment, and then offered a wry smile.
"That’s OK," he said. "Let them think that. We’ll just stay under the radar."
The decision earlier this week to convert right-hander Edwin Diaz, the organization’s top pitching prospect, into a reliever follows a similar move earlier this year with right-hander Dan Altavilla, a fifth-round pick in 2014.
The reasoning was much the same: The Mariners saw Altavilla, who made 42 starts over the last two years, as a better fit in the bullpen because, like Diaz, he is primarily a two-pitch pitcher.
Results are mixed.
Altavilla, 23, has three saves at Double-A Jackson but also a 4.72 ERA while giving up 14 hits and seven walks in 13 1/3 innings over nine appearances.
It was 15 years ago Friday — May 13, 2001 — that Edgar Martinez scored his 1,000th career run in a 7-5 victory at Toronto.
Martinez had an RBI single in the first inning against right-hander Esteban Loaiza and later scored on a Bret Boone single.
Martinez finished his 18-year career, spent entirely with the Mariners, with what remains a franchise record of 1,219 runs. Only two other players scored 1,000 or more runs as a Mariner: Ichiro Suzuki (1,176) and Ken Griffey Jr. (1,113).
The first-place Mariners open a three-game weekend series against the Los Angeles Angels at 7:10 p.m. Friday at Safeco Field.
Right-hander Nathan Karns (3-1 with a 3.38 ERA) will face LA right-hander Nick Tropeano (1-2, 3.69). The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on 710 ESPN.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners
MARINERS THROUGH 34 GAMES
2016: 21-13 (first place, 1 1/2 games up)
2015: 15-19 (third place, 6 1/2 games back)
2014: 18-16 (second place, 1 1/2 games back)
2013: 15-19 (third place, 5 1/2 games back)
2012: 15-19 (third place, 7 1/2 games back)
2011: 16-18 (fourth place, 3 games back)
2010: 13-21 (fourth place, 6 1/2 games back)
2009: 16-18 (third place, 3 1/2 games back)
2008: 14-20 (third place, 7 1/2 games back)
2007: 18-16 (second place, 1 game back)
2006: 14-20 (fourth place, 4 1/2 games back)
2005: 13-21 (fourth place, 6 games back)
2004: 12-22 (fourth place, 10 1/2 games back)
2003: 21-13 (first place, tied)
2002: 24-10 (first place, 6 1/2 games up)
2001: 25-9 (first place, 9 games up)