The Associated Press

The Associated Press

SEATTLE — These sinking Mariners have tried everything to avoid the AL's worst record.

Well, almost everything.

"In Toronto, I think they brought a stripper in the clubhouse," said Seattle manager John McLaren, a coach with Blue Jays teams that overcame struggles to win big in the late 1980s. "It got mixed reviews. Some of the guys who were pretty close to the Lord weren't too happy about it."

The Mariners (20-34) need more than that potential diversion. Oh, so much more.

Despite winning their last two games against Boston behind strong pitching, core problems remain. An underachieving rotation, a skittish offense and awful defense have crushed Seattle's rampant expectations for reaching the postseason for the first time since 2001.

Seattle was 16 games under .500 on Monday. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only the 1914 Boston Braves have been 16 games under .500 and still made the playoffs.

This weekend brings the Detroit Tigers. They swept the Mariners last week by a combined score of 30-14. A loss either today or Saturday would give Seattle its first 20-loss month since June 1998. The Mariners have already set a team record for defeats in May.

The defending AL West-champion Angels arrive next week. Seattle is already 11Â1/2; games behind Los Angeles in the division.

Not exactly what a payroll of $117 million was supposed to buy.

Impatient fans have stayed away enough this season to create eight of the 10 smallest crowds in the history of Safeco Field, which opened in 1999. They are demanding accountability for this pratfall, something that has been as elusive as wins.

A passive, if not indifferent, clubhouse has become a prime problem. Last week general manager Bill Bavasi declared the team needs a kick-in-the-pants leader to police fellow players.

The Mariners let that guy go last winter. They declined their half of a $9 million mutual option for 2008 with fiery right fielder Jose Guillen, who hit 23 home runs and had 99 RBIs last season. They didn't offer him a multiyear contract.

Guillen signed a $36 million, three-year contract with Kansas City. On Wednesday, he tore into Royals teammates for being "babies" after their 10th consecutive loss.

The day before in Seattle, 26-year-old Yuniesky Betancourt threw a bat in the dugout after McLaren pinch-hit for him in the ninth inning of a tie game. Betancourt, who apologized to McLaren, was crying in the clubhouse after the win as veteran reliever Arthur Rhodes consoled the shortstop with whispers and a pat on the shoulder.

Bavasi tried to replace Guillen in right field by signing Brad Wilkerson to a $3 million contract. But Wilkerson was hurt, punchless, then released before the season was a month old.

The relentlessly upbeat McLaren, a native Texan in his first full season as a major league manager after more than 21 years as a coach, could find sun inside a tornado. But even he acknowledges his team's goals have gone from winning the division to merely getting back to .500 to just stringing together some good days.

"We can't do it overnight. We can't do it in a week," said McLaren, who got a public assurance last week from Bavasi that his job was safe. "All we are thinking about is winning series. There's not an easy fix."

Not when what was supposed to be one of the best rotations in baseball has a 5.01 ERA, the highest of any AL staff.

Erik Bedard held Boston to two hits in seven scoreless innings Wednesday, but allowed a career-high nine runs at the Yankees in his previous start. He is 4-3 with a 4.08 ERA and eight home runs allowed in nine starts — hardly the dominant ace Seattle bargained for when it sent five players to Baltimore for the left-hander in February.

Just don't ask Bedard about expectations.

"I don't have expectations," he has said. "Everybody else has expectations. I don't."

Felix Hernandez, 22, still looks like Cy Young one night and Charlie Brown the next. Closer J.J. Putz is far from his 2007 dominance that got him to the All-Star game.

McLaren declared Putz, who missed most of April with a ribcage injury and had a finger irritation in May, was back after he saved Wednesday's game. But Putz walked two in the ninth inning and has walked 13 in 16 games this season. He walked that many in 68 games in '07. Putz has blown three of nine save chances this season — one more than he blew in 42 tries last year.

The offense lacks a consistent run producer. It is batting just .230 with runners in scoring position, tied for last in the major leagues with Toronto entering Thursday.

Seattle has tried bringing up rookies, but Jeff Clement hit just .167 with 20 strikeouts in 15 games before going back to Triple-A. New right fielder Wladimir Balentien has power but is batting only .221. He has struck out 29 times in 25 games.

The veterans haven't been much better. Franchise cornerstone Ichiro Suzuki is batting .290 — 43 points below his gaudy career average entering the season. The usually reclusive All-Star has said he sees signs his teammates are getting used to losing.

Richie Sexson is hitting .200 with just 21 RBIs in 44 games. The slugger, in the final year of a contract that is paying him $14 million this season, has spent the last two games on the bench watching seldom-used Miguel Cairo play first base.

Yet the manager says he sees signs of a prolonged turnaround.

"Our starting pitching is starting to tighten up quite a bit. There are signs of good things happening, and this team deserves it," McLaren said. "There have been a lot of things said or written, but these guys keep grinding."