The American economy has suffered from an ever-worsening performance in its manufacturing sector. Greater Seattle is an exception. Here we have a robust new growth initiative some call Manufacturing a Pennant Race. The captains of this industry include decision-makers at several local news organizations. Print-outlet editors have become especially keen on leading sports-section fronts with graphics pertaining to where the Seattle Mariners are in the American League West standings as well as their position in the wild-card race for a postseason playoff spot. Even though 47 games remained for the M's as they came home Sunday, August 12, from a 5-1 road trip to start a six-game homestand, local papers seem destined to continue carrying above-the-fold page-one teasers as to whether Seattle is .000111 or .000999 in front of or behind other A.L. clubs in the coveted wild-card configuration. If it keeps up, by mid-September editors at the Seattle dailies may have decided to start carrying the information on page one in 48-point bold-face type, all caps. Meanwhile, there actually seems to be a much lower-case caliber pennant race developing. After dispatching the White Sox 6-0 Sunday, the M's were 65-50 and still in the thick of both races cited above. Yet, in order to temper all this possibly premature conjecture about the postseason, M's managers have had to concede the need to solve several pressing problems. Each of the latter has been roughly the size of batting helmets Barry Bonds has been wearing during his mysterious late-career home-run surge. (Fairness note: Yes, Bloated Barry looks a little out of place next to players with traditional-size heads. Still, he looks perfectly normal when juxtaposed with other beings, such as she lions and the Jack-in-the-Box guy.) As for Mariners' problems, one used to be Raul Ibanez. The sweet-swinging left-fielder had been looking more like whiffin' Richie Sexson at the plate. One wonders whether bringing lineup-threat Adam Jones up from Tacoma had anything to do with it but Ibanez recently went on a tear. His five home runs in as many games through Saturday, August 11, lifted the M's when they needed it. The Ibanez problem, then, had seemed solved, at least until he fanned all four times during Sunday's road-trip finale. The greater challenge for the team could be starting pitching. Many arbiters feel the M's barely have three-fifths of a rotation capable of taking them to the playoffs. The unlikely staff ace, already with a career-high 12 wins, is Miguel Batista. Prize lefty Jarrod Washburn is 8-9 -- inexplicable on a 65-50 team with only one other solid starter. That would be Felix Hernandez, of course, although observers now have every reason to believe Jeff Weaver is the dependable rotation guy the M's never picked up in a July trade. Weaver, with eight K's, frustrated the White Sox Sunday, scattering five hits for the shutout. It's gotten to where one actually overhears M's fans confessing to looking forward to Weaver starts, and if you don't grasp the irony then you might've been in a coma when center-cut Jeff was tossing batting practice last spring. Team problem three (depending on the analyst) either has been or soon will be or, more likely, never will be solved. It has to do with that 80-vertical-inch specimen filling the No. 7 hole in the M's lineup. Sexson actually was 8 for 21 during the road trip, the brief .381 pace raising his season mark all the way to .206. M's partisans would have forgiven him for a lesser road average if only Richie hadn't hit into a pair of double plays (one of them nearly a triple play) during Seattle's Friday loss to Chicago. The five-win trip means pennant-race conjecture remains a growth business for bullish local speculators. Team marketing reps are pushing playoff seating packages as a pretext for selling season-ticket futures. Amid all this Gold Rush-caliber speculation, seemingly nobody is noting the reasonable prospect of the M's staying home yet again in October, so far be it from us to bring it up. Besides, pennant-race speculation is a pretty low-polluting enterprise, creating nothing worse than the stuff left by the bullish members of the cattle-producing industry.