A sea change for the Mariners


SEATTLE -- Far too many games at Safeco Field over the past decade or so have been less than wonderful for Mariners fans. But last Monday provided a night so magical and spectacular that it deserved to be on a movie screen.

The stands were packed with loud, exuberant fans, most wearing blue or yellow. True, many were  Toronto Blue Jays fans who had driven two hours from British Columbia to see Toronto play Seattle, but it still made for a fun, festive back-and-forth. King Felix Hernandez was dealing as usual, while his King's Court of yellow-shirted, "K!"-shouting fans filled three levels of the stadium. And Robinson Cano had one of his best nights since signing with Seattle. He homered, doubled, walked, scored two runs, drove in two and made two superb defensive plays.

The best moment of all, however, occurred in a seven-run sixth inning when Seattle broke open its 11-1 victory.

Cano, who homered to lead off the inning, stepped into the batter's box again with two outs. A bolt of lightning suddenly flashed across the sky, and thunder boomed throughout the ballpark. You almost expected Cano to literally hit the cover off the ball and slide into third with a triple as the outfielders collected the ball's twine, a la Roy Hobbs in "The Natural." Instead, Cano merely doubled.

"Whoa, that was scary," Cano said of the lightning. "That was really scary. I hope that doesn't happen again."

No, Robbie, Seattle fans desperately want that to happen again. They have been waiting a long time for their team to be a legitimate contender, and, once again, when this season began, the odds of doing so seemed lower than the chance of being struck by lightning.

And yet, here they are, with the best pitching in the majors, coming off an 8-1 homestand, 10 games above .500 and with a real chance to take some attention away from the  Seahawks in October. They might be in third place in the AL West, 7½ games behind the  Oakland A's, but baseball's best division could provide three postseason teams. The Mariners enter tonight's three-game series against the  Detroit Tigers just a half-game behind struggling Detroit for the second wild card.

As former manager Lou Piniella instructed them when the Mariners inducted him into the team Hall of Fame last weekend: "Let's kick some butt the rest of the year and get to the playoffs and make Seattle proud of you."

The last time Seattle was really proud of the Mariners was 2001, when they won 116 games, the most in American League history, while drawing 3.5 million fans, highest in the majors. Unfortunately, they lost the 2001 American League Championship Series to the  New York Yankees and haven't returned to the postseason since. They've gone through nine managers since then -- including just about every ex-Cleveland skipper except Lou Brown -- and have finished last seven times.

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