A sea change for the Mariners

Attendance dropped nearly in half. The Seahawks, who reached the Super Bowl in 2006 and won it this year, soared to the top in popularity. The FC Seattle Sounders soccer team drew nearly half as many fans in a quarter as many games as the Mariners last year. Apart from the home opener, the biggest Mariners home crowd this season prior to the Jays game was for a giveaway of Macklemore bobbleheads.

Like Cleveland finally did in "Major League," though, the Mariners are giving their fans reason to get excited these days. In addition to being in the wild card hunt, they are tied with Washington for the second-best run differential in baseball, and have the American League's best pitcher: King Felix.

With a changeup that might be the most difficult pitch to hit in the majors, Hernandez has turned in 16 consecutive starts of at least seven innings and two or fewer runs allowed. No previous pitcher has ever done that -- not Bob Gibson in 1968, not Sandy Koufax, not even Christy Mathewson in the dead-ball era. Felix is 8-2 with a 1.41 ERA and 134 strikeouts in that span.

"That's something else, but he is something else," catcher Mike Zunino said. "That's all you can say. He's got the best stuff and he's pitching, too. When you have a combination of both, it's pretty hard to score multiple runs off him."

The second wild-card spot isn't the sort of thing you necessarily mark with a banner, but would you want your team to face Felix in a one-game playoff?

For that matter, would you want to face the Mariners' top three starters if they get further?  Hisashi Iwakuma is 11-6 with a 2.72 ERA and a 0.97 WHIP. Chris Young, signed at the end of spring training after the  Washington Nationals released him, is 11-6 with a 3.20 ERA and 1.12 WHIP. Those three have the best combined ERA of any starting trio in the league. The rotation has a league-leading 3.28 ERA, while the bullpen has a league-best 2.33 ERA.

Overall, the Mariners' ERA is 2.95. It's been 25 years since a major league team finished with an ERA under 3.00. The last American League team to do so in a full season was the 1974 world champion Athletics.

"I don't think I would want to meet those guys in a short series," a veteran scout said. "I wouldn't want to face them in one game, and I think it would be a low-scoring seven-game series, too."

Yes, it likely would be. The issue -- the thing most responsible for keeping Seattle behind Oakland and the  Los Angeles Angels in the AL West Division -- has been the offense. As Hernandez knows all too well, the Mariners have struggled to score runs for years; and this year, they are 28th in OBP and 25th in OPS. Somehow, they are merely 21st in runs. (Perhaps Glenn Close stands up during clutch moments.)

"It's the old adage: Pitching and defense wins games," manager Lloyd McClendon said. "We pitch pretty well and we can catch the ball. Are we challenged offensively? Yeah, we are. But like I tell everyone else, we take our BB gun and shoot you between the eyes while we dodge the shotgun."

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