CHICAGO -- The emergence of Trayvon Robinson in left field and some hot hitting by right fielder Eric Thames has made for an increasingly competitive situation in the Mariners outfield, a scenario that could get even more interesting soon when Franklin Gutierrez returns from his injury rehab.
Thames, who has taken Ichiro Suzuki's spot in right field, is hitting .269 with three home runs and 10 RBIs in 20 games since being acquired from Toronto. He hit .400 in the Mariners' eight straight wins before going 0-for-4 in Friday's 9-8 loss to the White Sox.
Robinson, who went 3-for-4 and hit his first home run in Friday's setback, is batting .250 in 19 games, but has flashed much-improved defense with four outstanding catches in the past week. Consequently, Casper Wells has seen his playing time diminish after a rough stretch that dropped his average to .227, though manager Eric Wedge said he'll still get time against left-handed pitching.
Meanwhile, Gutierrez is batting .353 with seven RBIs in five rehab games with Triple-A Tacoma going into Friday's action.
"Hopefully, he'll be back here soon and that turns it up even more," Wedge said of the competition. "It's healthy. I think it's good. We've had a chance to watch a lot of players play and we've got a lot of guys up here that are helping us win ballgames right now and that's what you like to see."
The biggest surprise has been the outfield defense after Robinson and Thames both had some shaky moments initially.
"Trayvon was a little rocky when he got here and he's really got a lot better," Wedge said. "It took a couple days for Eric to settle in a little bit. With more playing time, I think both of those guys have settled in better. Michael Saunders has done a fantastic job all year and Wells has done a great job when he's out there."
Gutierrez was a Gold Glove center fielder in 2010, so his return would allow Saunders to move to left or right. One thing is certain, Saunders will remain in the lineup as an emerging all-around player. His four home runs in the past four games only reaffirmed his five-tool ability.
Saunders is tied for the team lead with his career-high 14 home runs and his .414 slugging percentage is obliterating his career average of .306.
"It's just part of it," Wedge said of Saunders' power potential. "You know it's going to happen because it's in there. The more he hits, the more that is going to happen. But he has to hit first. He did a nice job of handling a tough stretch there and he's reaping the benefits the way he's come out of it."
Atmosphere changing with positive results
CHICAGO -- The Mariners have done some heavy lifting over the last six weeks, pulling themselves back into the .500 neighborhood with the best record (tied with Oakland) in the American League since the All-Star break.
And yes, that 25-14 run is making a difference in the feel of a young team that suddenly finds itself at least on the outskirts of the Wild Card talk at 7 1/2 games back after winning eight of nine.
"Everybody has a little hop in their step, a little fire underneath them," said right-hander Blake Beavan, who starts Saturday night against the White Sox. "The big thing everybody is saying right now is, 'Why not us?'
"We have nothing to lose," Beavan said. "Nobody talks about us. We're just going to try to keep playing good baseball like we have been and everything else kind of takes care of itself. You just keep pushing, going up that mountain. That's what we're doing and the atmosphere couldn't be any better right now in our clubhouse. This is what it's supposed to be like. This has been fun to be a part of."
First baseman Justin Smoak has felt the difference since being recalled from Triple-A Tacoma eight games ago. Heading into Friday's game, the Mariners hadn't lost since his return and he acknowledged the new sense of confidence on the club.
"It's definitely a different feel. It's been good," said Smoak. "There's more of a camaraderie among guys. Everybody is pulling for each other. Everybody is doing their part, if it's bunting a guy over, taking a walk when you need to, making plays in the field -- and there have been some really good plays of late.
"It's always more fun when you win," he said. "Guys are expecting to win every time they come to the field. That's something we've got going on right now and we want to keep it going."
Smoak pushing through rough spell at plate
CHICAGO -- Justin Smoak hasn't put up big offensive numbers since replacing an injured Mike Carp, but the Mariners first baseman continues to stay positive as he works on his swing from both sides of the plate.
Smoak is 5-for-29 (.172) with a home run in his first nine games since his recall from Triple-A Tacoma, but isn't putting too much weight on those numbers.
"I feel great," he said before going 0-for-3 with a walk in Friday's loss. "The last couple days I've hit the ball well with nothing really to show for it, but I just have to keep having good at-bats. Over a long time, you keep having good at-bats and hopefully good things will happen for you."
"I've seen signs," said manager Eric Wedge. "He's got a little different approach from the left side. I see a shorter swing, a little more direct swing. He's having longer at-bats, fouling pitches off that before he wasn't getting to. I'm optimistic for him."
Smoak has kept his head up through a tough season and has played strong defense on a team that prides itself on the glove work. But he knows he needs to produce with the bat and that there's no better time than now.
"This is a good place to hit," Smoak said of U.S. Cellular Field. "The ball flies here, especially when it's hot. Hopefully, we can do some damage here in the next couple days."
John Jaso has reached base in 26 straight games dating back to the All-Star break, with the Mariners 17-9 in his starts. Jaso has hit .321 with five home runs and 20 RBIs since the break.
Entering play Friday, Mariners relievers had not allowed a run over their last 14 2/3 innings since Aug. 18 and had a 1.46 ERA with 25 strikeouts and a .176 batting average against in 24 2/3 innings since Aug. 10. In Friday's 9-8 loss, the bullpen allowed three runs over the final 4 1/3 innings.
Miguel Olivo has seen his playing time limited in recent weeks, but the veteran catcher has an eight-game hitting streak since July 31 and is batting .324 in that stretch.