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Stecker’s 3 Things: Mariners have a real rotation again, but is it too late?

Mike Leake is 3-0 and has allowed just five earned runs since joining the Mariners. (AP)

The Mariners are back in Seattle, and the stretch run of the season is finally here. Here are three things to keep in mind for their last six games at Safeco Field, starting at 7:10 Tuesday night against the Texas Rangers.

1. Any room for error is officially gone.

As the Mariners begin their final homestand of the 2017 season, they are truly on the ropes. Trailing Minnesota by four games for the American League’s second wild card with 12 games to go for each team, the Mariners can afford just eight combined losses of their own or Twins victories before they are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. That can add up really quick – perhaps by the end of the week – so any loss for Seattle here on out will have a dramatic impact. Oh, and even if the Twins stumble and the Mariners overtake them, the Angels are still ahead of Seattle by 2.5 games while any of Kansas City, Texas, Tampa Bay and Baltimore could still be in the mix. Factor in that three games apiece against the Rangers and Angels remain for the Mariners, not to mention a trio of games against a Cleveland team that entering Tuesday had won 24 of its last 25 games (setting the MLB record for most consecutive wins along the way), and you can see that Seattle is fighting an extremely steep uphill battle.

2. Hey, look, it’s pitching.

OK, so the Mariners had a pretty rough time in Houston before flying home, losing three straight as the Astros clinched the American League West championship. But there is reason to be a little optimistic, and that’s because Seattle actually has something resembling a major league starting rotation again. Felix Hernandez and James Paxton have returned, and while they’re both still building up their pitch counts since they weren’t able to make any rehab starts in the minors, they’re definite improvements to the rotation. The Mariners have to be ecstatic about what they’ve seen out of recent trade acquisition Mike Leake, too, who is 3-0 and has given up just five earned runs over 18 2/3 innings withe Seattle. That leaves Erasmo Ramirez and Marco Gonzales to make up the final two spots of the group, which is a lot easier to take than when they were mixed in a jumble with several other back-end options just trying to keep the wheels from rolling off.

3. Milestones to watch.

With the season near its end, the Mariners have a few players inching closer to milestones that could be met by the end of the season. Here’s a quick list:

• Robinson Cano’s next home run will be No. 300 for his career. If he can hit it before the end of the season, he’ll join Nelson Cruz as the second Mariner to hit that same milestone in 2017. Cano is also just 10 short of his fifth season with at least 100 RBIs.

• Cruz already has a career-high 110 RBIs – his third with 100 or more and second in a row – and has hit over 30 homers for the fourth straight year and fifth time overall. Should he go on a tear and hit at least seven more homers, it would be his fourth consecutive year with 40 or more.

• Kyle Seager (.253 average, 25 home runs, 83 RBIs) has already hit 25 home runs and driven in at least 74 runs for the fourth straight season. If he can raise his batting average seven points or more, it would be his fifth straight year with a .260 mark or higher. Five more homers would give him 30 for the second year in a row.

• James Paxton’s next out recorded will give him a career-high in innings pitched (currently 121). It’s the same innings he pitched last year, which was considered by some to be a breakout as he went 6-7 with a 3.79 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 117 strikeouts. His numbers have been far better this year, even with two DL stints, as he is 12-4 with a 2.98 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 138 strikeouts.

• One more save for Edwin Diaz would tie him with Jose Mesa (1999) and Mike Schooler (1989) for 10th most in a season by a Mariner at 33.