Jack Zduriencik is the general manager of the Mariners but, first and foremost, he is a scout. He spent the first 25 years of his baseball career as a scout or scouting director, including a notably successful stint with the Brewers that helped transform the one-time laughingstock franchise into a contender. When the Brewers made their first playoff appearance in 26 years last season, they did so because of the contributions of many of Zduriencik’s draft picks.

However, Zduriencik is also open to new ideas. When a Philadelphia accountant named Tony Blengino approached Zduriencik about joining his scouting staff as a combination scout and statistical analyst, the scouting director decided to try it. “I was never a big stat guy but Tony opened my eyes,” Zduriencik said. “I realized that the numbers could tell you a lot of things about the players, maybe some things a scout’s eyes don’t always see. By the time I left the Brewers, our scouts had learned to look at things differently because of Tony’s work.”

Most of all, Zduriencik is a people person. He has never met a stranger and makes everyone feel as if they are the most important person in the world. Thus, when Zduriencik was hired by the Mariners last October after they had gone 61-101, he knew that people skills and personal interaction were going to be just as important in rebuilding a broken franchise as player evaluation or sabermetrics. To a man, the Mariners believe it is Zduriencik’s deft touch in adding both talented and personable players that have helped transform them into a contender this season, as the Mariners are 48-43 and in third place in the American League West, just four games behind the division-leading Angels. “Everything is different this year,” right fielder Ichiro Suzuki said. “The people are different and the attitude is different. It is as if last year never occurred.”

Zduriencik heard the horror stories of the 2008 Mariners, including the vitriolic clubhouse atmosphere that began before manager John McLaren was fired in June, which continued under interim skipper Jim Riggleman. The only uniting factor among the players seemed to be that they all hated Ichiro and what they felt was the special treatment he received from management.

So when Zduriencik went about hiring a manager and reconstructing the roster last winter, he knew he had to take the Rodney King approach and build a team where everyone could get along. “I never considered wins and losses,” Zduriencik said. “I felt the most important thing was to change the culture. We couldn’t have guys who were consistently pointing fingers at each other. The old expression that says if you point a finger, three fingers will point back at you is true. You’re together for six months, longer when you count spring training. You’re in the clubhouse together, in buses, on planes, in hotels. It’s a hard enough game to succeed at when everyone is getting along, and it’s almost impossible if you don’t like each other or at least tolerate each other.”

Zduriencik’s hired Athletics bench coach Don Wakamatsu, as manager. “I could sense he was the perfect fit,” Zduriencik said. “He’s very personable and real easygoing, the kind of guy you feel very comfortable being around. At the same time, he is a really bright guy, and has a way of letting you know who is in charge without saying a word. He has that right balance you’re looking for in a manager.”

Zduriencik understands that talent is ultimately the determining factor between winning and losing teams, and he felt he inherited a roster that had enough good players to at least be competitive with some tweaking. At the urging of Blengino, who he brought along from the Brewers as a top assistant, Zduriencik decided one of the quickest ways to respectability was improving the outfield defense, especially with the Mariners having spacious Safeco Field as their home park. Thus, Zduriencik acquired left fielder Endy Chavez from the Mets and center fielder Franklin Gutierrez from the Indians in a three-team, 12-player trade at the Winter Meetings to join Ichiro. Chavez is out for the year with an injury, but beyond the added defense, Gutierrez has also helped with the bat, as he has a .280 EqA.

However, two smaller off-season acquisitions have proven to be huge for the Mariners this season. First baseman Russell Branyan has a .325 EqA after be signed as a free agent to no fanfare, and right-hander David Aardsma, picked up from the Red Sox in a minor trade, leads the major leagues with 3.67 WXRL. Zduriencik is also just as proud of two other moves he made that have paid off more in the clubhouse than on the field, signing veteran designated hitters Ken Griffey Jr. (.265 EqA) and Mike Sweeney (.240).

Returning to the Northwest after having starred for the Mariners from 1989-99, Griffey has regained the role of franchise icon from the extremely private Suzuki,. Suzuki appears at ease in the United States for the first time in his outstanding nine-year career, and Griffey keeps him loose but constantly tickling him. Yes, tickling. “He’s the most ticklish dude in the world,” Griffey said. “I try to have fun with him every day and I don’t think he takes himself very seriously anymore because I won’t let him. I want him to have fun and everyone is a seeing a different side of him.”

Sweeney, meanwhile, has been able to unite everyone in the clubhouse through force of personality. He and the rest of the Mariners’ bench players have a ritual where they stand first in line in front for the dugout for the playing of the national anthem before every game. “We trying to get close enough so we can smell home plate because we don’t get in the batter’s box very often,” Sweeney said with a laugh. “It’s a little silly, sure, but it’s a long season, and things like that keep a team loose. This game can drive you crazy if you don’t have fun. We’re having fun and we’re winning games. I don’t think that’s mutually exclusive.”

While BP hasn’t (and won’t) developed a metric to measure how much fun a team is having, one statistic sums up the Mariners’ success: they are first in the AL and fifth in the majors in runs allowed with an average of 4.1 runs a game, and first in the league and third in the majors with a .707 Defensive Efficiency. That has enabled them to stay in contention despite ranking 29th in the majors with an average of 3.9 runs scored a game, and 27th in the majors in team EqA.

The Mariners have one of baseball’s biggest surprises to this point. Now, Wakamatsu wants to see if his club can go the distance. “The biggest key is if we can stay grounded in the fact that what we’ve done, mentally, is played with nothing to lose,” Wakamatsu said. “As the season wears on and standings start to become more important every day, everything else starts to creep up. I think the pressure from the outside increases. Our ability to stay focused will be the key.”

The Twins haven’t been good and they haven’t been bad this season. They are 47-44 and in third place in the AL Central, but just two games behind the first-place Tigers. In fact, catcher Joe Mauer pretty well has his team pegged. “Overall, I’d say we’ve been an average team,” Mauer said.

“We have to feel very fortunate to still be in the race because we haven’t really had a stretch where we’ve played great baseball all season,” first baseman Justin Morneau added. “We’ve always prided ourselves as an organization in doing the little things that end up adding up to big things. We didn’t do that the first two months of the season. We missed about six sacrifice-bunt attempts, we didn’t always take the extra base when we could have, we made fundamental mistakes in the field. We’ve really cleaned those things up lately, though, and we’re playing better, just not at the level it takes to win the division.”

The Twins are 11th in runs scored a game (and 16th in team EqA), 13th in runs allowed, and seventh in Defensive Efficiency. All are respectable numbers, though nothing great. However, one interesting fact that stands out about the Twins is that they have yet to win more than four games in a row this season.

“It seems like we’re always on the verge of taking off but it just hasn’t happened yet,” closer Joe Nathan said. “We’re very fortunate to still be right in the race and the time has come where we need to take advantage and assert ourselves.” Morneau chimes in, “What we need is a nine-game or a 10-game winning streak, the kind we seem to run off every year. If we could do that, we’d be in pretty good shape.”

One of the reasons the Nationals fired Manny Acta last Sunday was because they felt he wasn’t tough enough on his players, and had allowed them to accept losing. Thus, it had to be somewhat disconcerting to club officials when Riggleman, promoted to interim manager from bench coach said at his introductory news conference that he is anything but a taskmaster. “I feel I’m a bit of a softy,” Riggleman announced. “I think I’m pretty easy. I think I’m pretty easy in the sense that if players are not playing well, I understand that. It’s a tough game. But if they’re not playing hard, that irks me. If they’re not respectful of the game, respectful of the uniform, respectful of the fans then that’s a problem.”

As their 26-64 record indicates (including losing their first three under Riggleman), the Nationals’ problems are legion. Left fielder Adam Dunn hopes the firing of Acta is a wake-up call to the players. “It’s a terrible feeling,” Dunn said. “Essentially, we got him fired because we didn’t perform up to expectations. That’s a tough pill to swallow.”

Acta was in a no-win situation. His roster was lacking in talent, and the organization is in a state of flux after general manager Jim Bowden resigned under pressure on March 1; assistant GM Mike Rizzo has been handling GM duties without the title.

Nationals president Stan Kasten had a hard time coming up with anything negative to say about Acta. “You always know where Manny is,” Kasten said. “He’s the same guy every day. That is an important quality. I value that. I think that is a characteristic of managers who are successful on the long term. It hasn’t been working for him yet and I’m disappointed in that because I do think history is replete with guys who didn’t have success with his first manager job and went on to have great managing careers. I believe Manny is going to be another one of those kinds of managers.”

The Pirates are on their way to a 17th straight losing season, which would break their tie with 1933-48 Phillies for the longest sustained streak of futility in major American professional sports. They were28th among the 30 major league teams in average attendance before the All-Star break, ahead of only the Marlins and Athletics. They sparked fan outrage last month when by trading center fielder Nate McLouth, their most popular player, just a year after making his first All-Star Game and winning his first Gold Glove.

Yet, commissioner Bud Selig insists that everything is alright with the Steel City’s franchise. His rationale is somewhat flimsy, as he pointed to the Pirates having their top two prospects, Triple-A right-hander Brad Lincoln and Double-A third baseman Pedro Alvarez appear in last Sunday’s All-Star Futures Game in St. Louis. “I don’t mention this to very many people, but I have three people whose I opinions I trust very much evaluate the farm system of every team on an annual basis,” said Selig, who did not name the three people. “They rate the Pirates as having one of the best farm systems in the game. That leads me to believe they are on the right track in Pittsburgh. I understand that fans there don’t want to hear about the future because they’ve been losing for so long. The organization is making good strides, though, and I believe it is only a matter of time before they win.”

The Pirates have made sweeping organizational changes in recent years, and Selig believes those moves will eventually pay off. Bob Nutting replaced Kevin McClatchy as the Pirates’ control person prior to the 2007 season, then hired Frank Coonelly as team president in September of that year. Coonelly brought Neal Huntington in as general manager. “I know Bob Nutting and his family are committed to making that franchise a winner again,” Selig said. “I’m partial to Frank Coonelly because he worked for us at Major League Baseball (as general counsel), and he is a very bright and determined guy. That franchise is in good hands.”

Rumors and rumblings:
The Blue Jays continue to shop right-hander Roy Halladay, and indications are that the Phillies are not as hot on him as has been reported, and that the Angels may be the frontrunners. GM J.P. Ricciardi is also willing to trade Halladay inside the division, which means the Red Sox will be in the hunt, and the Yankees are expected to be, too, despite indications to the contrary. The White Sox and Dodgers might be dark-horse contenders, as well as the Rangers, despite owner Tom Hicks’ financial problems. … The Diamondbacks are willing to trade catcher Chris Snyder because of the emergence of Miguel Montero this season, and they are trying to trade outfielder Eric Byrnes to the Red Sox for shortstop Julio Lugo in an exchange of awful contracts. … The Mets figure to be the frontrunners for Lugo’s services if the Red Sox aren’t able to trade him since designating him for assignment, although the Cardinals and Cubs also have interest. … The Blue Jays could find a taker for third baseman Scott Rolen in the Reds if they are willing to eat part of his contract. The Red Sox also have at least cursory interest. … The Yankees have interest in Pirates right-hander Ian Snell, who is now at Triple-A Indianapolis and does not want to return to Pittsburgh. … There is thought that Acta could wind up as the Astros‘ manager next season if Cecil Cooper is fired in the offseason. … The Royals are expected to be named as host of the 2012 All-Star Game, with the 2013 game going to the Mets.

Three series to watch this week, with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):

Red Sox at Rangers, Monday-Wednesday (July 20-22)
John Smoltz vs. Kevin Millwood, 8:05 p.m.; Josh Beckett vs. Tommy Hunter, 8:05 p.m.; Tim Wakefield vs. Vicente Padilla, 8:05 p.m., ESPN

Cardinals at Astros, Monday-Wednesday (July 20-22)
Joel Pineiro vs. Brian Moehler, 8:05 p.m.; Todd Wellemeyer vs. Wandy Rodriguez, 8:05 p.m.; Chris Carpenter vs. Roy Oswalt, 8:05 p.m.

Mariners at Tigers, Tuesday-Thursday (July 21-23)
Garrett Olson vs. Armando Galarraga, 7:05 p.m.; Felix Hernandez vs. Rick Porcello, 7:05 p.m.; Jarrod Washburn vs. Luke French, 1:05 p.m.