A sea change for the Mariners

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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.

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."

The offense has picked up a little bit since McClendon said that, and the scout says that if recently acquired Kendrys Morales or someone else can get hot to help Cano and third baseman Kyle Seager, the Mariners will really be a force. Felix would certainly appreciate it. Asked what he thought of finally receiving some run support on Monday, Hernandez replied in almost Tony the Tiger fashion, "It feels grrrreatttttt."

What improvement there has been can be partly credited to Cano's influence.

"I'm not going to take away from what he does on the field, which is obviously special. But off the field, with the way he handles himself, he has a calming effect on everybody," said Seager, a first-time All-Star. "He shows you how to just stay with it and everything will be good. You never see him panic. Whether he's 0-for-5 or 5-for-5, he's the same guy. He's brought that demeanor to us, that if we don't get the job done today, we will tomorrow."

Cano shocked baseball last winter when he signed with the Mariners rather than re-sign with the Yankees or with another big-market team. Part of it was the money, naturally -- who would turn down $240 million? -- and part of it was King Felix encouraging him.

"I told him they will treat you like family. This is a great organization. You will love it here," Hernandez said. "I was just telling him the truth."

While Cano's power was down at the start of the season -- Safeco Field is not as kind to hitters as Yankee Stadium can be -- it's back a bit now. (He has 10 home runs.) His average has been there all along -- he's second in the league at .329.

As vital as Cano has been offensively, his defense has been important, too. His style is so relaxed that he makes every play look easy, even when it isn't. In Monday's game, he fielded a grounder with a runner heading from second to third. Most second baseman would have taken the easy out at first and let the runner advance to third. Not Cano. He fired to third and threw out the runner so easily that you wondered why more second baseman don't try that. He later caught a popup with his back to the plate, again making it look simple.

"There is only one guy who can make both of those plays in one game," Zunino said. "It's pretty impressive. There is never any sense of panic. He never rushes anything. It just shows you how good he is, and that play at third shows you he's always one step ahead."

McClendon, who was Detroit's hitting coach under Jim Leyland the past seven years, is also steps ahead of where he was managing the  Pittsburgh Pirates from 2001 to 2005. Working with little talent, he went 336-446 and never had a winning season in Pittsburgh. His most infamous moment was when he got in an argument with an umpire and literally stole first base. (It's in this collection of "SportsCenter" Top 10 Sports Meltdowns.)

Reliever Joe Beimel pitched for McClendon during those years and says the manager has matured since then.

"He's quite a bit more calm than when I first came up," Beimel said. "He was dealing then with a lot of young guys. He was a little younger -- I was younger -- and I think over the years, working with Leyland and seeing how he went about things, has really transformed him into the manager he is now.

"If you need it, he's going to jump on you and tell you that you need to be better. But at the same time, you can't do that with every single player because some players don't respond to that. And he's figured out which ones do and which ones don't, and it's working really well for him."

McClendon doesn't rip articles of clothing off a poster of the owner after every victory, but players say he has created a less pressured atmosphere in the clubhouse. "You've got to give credit to Lloyd, who is a key part of this success," Hernandez said. "Lloyd is a big part of this, and he's our boss. He just lets us play. Go out there and have fun and do our thing."

And even though McClendon is a former hitting coach, Young says he manages the pitching staff as well as any manager he's played for.

Cano gave up the bright lights of New York to play with the Mariners, but perhaps he will bring some of that spotlight and glamour to Seattle -- just as his agent, Jay Z, did when he and Beyonce played Safeco Field last month.

During Monday's electric game, Cano talked to teammate and former  New York Met  Endy Chavez.

"When you play in New York, every day is like this," Cano said. "There, you have to win. You have to play to win every single game, and it's always crowded like this, always crowded. Especially when you play in New York against Boston. That's how it felt tonight."

Seattle fans will cross their fingers, wear their rally caps Fernando Rodney-style and hope they can feel it again throughout the final six weeks of the season -- and then, perhaps, in an October fit for the silver screen.

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