The Seattle Mariners technically don't occupy a playoff spot at the moment, and they haven't been to the postseason since Ichiro Suzuki was busy winning American League Rookie of the Year and MVP while pushing them to an AL-record 116 wins way back in 2001.
Just a half-game out of a wild-card spot, however, they're in position to put an end to that October drought and be the most dangerous club in the Junior Circuit.
While the AL West crown looks to be out of reach with the Los Angeles Angels eight games up on Seattle and less than a month to go, the Mariners—should they make it to the win-or-go-home Wild Card Game—potentially have a huge advantage, a perfect and anything-but-secret weapon: Felix Hernandez.
After a surprising stretch of three non-dominant outings in a row, the 28-year-old former Cy Young winner and current front-runner was back to his usual brilliant self Wednesday in a matchup that could be a preview of the do-or-die one-game playoff play-in.
Hernandez twirled eight innings of three-hit, one-run ball to defeat the division-rival Oakland Athletics 2-1. He needed just 102 pitches to cut up an offense that has struggled in the second half but still leads baseball in runs scored.
Not only that, but Hernandez and the Mariners (75-63) made it past Jon Lester and the Athletics (79-60), who acquired the two-time World Series winner at the trade deadline specifically for matchups like this.
"It means a lot," Hernandez said, via Greg Johns of MLB.com. "We came [to Oakland] to win the series, and that's what we did. Going against Lester, I knew it was going to be tough. I just had to make good pitches."
The Mariners now are only a half-game behind the Detroit Tigers for the second wild-card spot and 3.5 in back of the A's, who hold the other.
The win gave the three-game set to Seattle, which dropped the first contest when Comeback Player of the Year candidate Chris Young couldn't make it through the first inning Monday. Then rookie left-hander James Paxton turned the tide by topping second-year stud Sonny Gray on Tuesday.
That set the stage for Hernandez-Lester in a genuine ace-off with the series on the line.
Don't blame Lester for not quite being able to outduel Hernandez, though. When the King is on, like he was Wednesday, the opposing pitcher and lineup really don't stand a chance. Heck, the other team almost doesn't matter.
Hernandez, after all, ranks in the top five in all of baseball in everything from ERA (2.18) and WHIP (0.90) to innings pitched (206.0) and strikeouts (209) to batting average against (.199) and opponent OPS (.546).
Then there's that ridiculous streak in which Hernandez set the all-time record for consecutive starts with at least seven innings pitched and no more than two runs allowed. His 16 in a row stretched from May 18 to Aug. 11 and bested Tom Seaver's previous run, from 1971, by three starts.
And who knows? Maybe following three so-so turns between the end of that streak and Wednesday's gem, Hernandez is ready to get rolling again. And at just the right time.
It's not as if Hernandez has been doing this—keeping the Mariners in the race—all by himself. He's had plenty of help from fellow right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma (2.90 ERA, 0.97 WHIP), as well as MVP candidates in first-year Mariner Robinson Cano (.321/.387/.461) and third baseman Kyle Seager (.278/.344/.479).
In fact, it was Seager's second home run in as many days that was part of back-to-back bombs with Corey Hart to tie and then put Seattle up for good in the seventh inning to get the double-yoo for Hernandez.
Seager already has tied last year's career high with 22 homers, and he sits just one RBI behind his best-ever total of 86 from 2012.
But make no mistake: Hernandez is the reason why the Mariners are the team every other AL contender is hoping doesn't make it to the postseason for the 13th consecutive year.
So how does Hernandez feel about pitching in the heat of a playoff chase for the first time in his career?
"I'm really excited,'' Hernandez told Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today. "It feels different. Every game counts and the environment is different.''
Just imagine the challenge that comes with the prospect of having to face arguably baseball's best pitcher in a one-and-done showdown.
If that scenario comes to pass, well, best of luck to the A's, or the Detroit Tigers or Kansas City Royals or whichever team is unlucky enough to step in the box with Hernandez staring back. They'd be facing a Hernandez who, in his 10 years in the bigs, has never sniffed October and has all that motivation pent up and ready to be unleashed.
That's a wild-card weapon, indeed.
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