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07/16/09 7:04 PM ET

Seattle bringing swagger into second half

With pieces in place, Mariners in heat of AL West race

CLEVELAND -- Stepping into the season's second half, the Mariners are just where no one thought they would be -- within striking distance of first place in the American League West.

However, the attitude in Seattle's clubhouse, when it comes to exceeding expectations, is: "So what?" The Mariners haven't gone away, and because they care only about their own expectations, they don't plan to fade anytime soon.

There are many reasons for the newfound Seattle swagger -- Felix Hernandez's nine wins and 2.53 ERA, or Ichiro Suzuki's .362 batting average, for example -- but first baseman Russell Branyan says there's more to it.

"It takes passion, and there's not one person here who'd rather be somewhere else," Branyan said.

Still, questions linger about the Mariners, who were four games behind the Los Angeles Angels and a game and a half behind the Texas Rangers heading into Thursday's action.

Can the pitching staff maintain its AL-leading 3.73 ERA? Can the team continue to get by with an offense that is in the bottom half of the league in most categories? How long can the team keep a winning record while trailing in run differential? And, finally, is this team overachieving, or is the team's will to win strong enough to overcome its weaknesses?

"We've got good players and a chance to win the division," Hernandez said. "It's going to be tough, but we've got the players. The second half is going to be a good one."

To hear Branyan talk, the Mariners are just where they want to be. The pieces are in place, and the second half of the season should be exciting for a group of fans that may have feared another lost season leading up to Opening Day.

"No one expected this ballclub to really compete, but [general manager] Jack Zduriencik has really put together a nice roster here and [manager] Don Wakamatsu has done great," Branyan said.

"We believe in each other, and night after night, if you have that combination of belief, desire and passion to win, you're going to win some ballgames. That's why we're trying to keep our minds on an even keel and stay positive."

Sometimes, Branyan said, that means tuning out criticism.

"You don't even look at that," Branyan said.

Wakamatsu, meanwhile, said that the All-Star break came at a good time for his club.

"I think there's a lot of nagging injuries," Wakamatsu said. "[Ken] Griffey [Jr.] needed some time with his knee, and [Franklin] Gutierrez has some knee issues and is playing hurt. Plus the bullpen. I think [the break was] good for everybody."

Meanwhile, it's still too early in the season to worry about the break affecting the Mariners' flow.

"As far as controlling that momentum, we've still got a lot of baseball to play," Wakamatsu said. "We just had meetings about it. We have to continue to play fundamental baseball.

"We'll continue to win or lose baseball games by how we show up to play. I've never had a problem with this club yet about not wanting to come to play each day."

Stephen Ellsesser is an contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.