Felix Hernandez may be key to the Mariners’ playoff push

Sep 19, 2016, 12:11 PM | Updated: 2:27 pm

Baseball may be a marathon, but the Mariners are in the final sprint and may need Felix Hernandez to push them across the finish line.

Seattle enters Monday’s three-game series against the Blue Jays tied with Detroit at two games behind Toronto for the second wild-card spot and three games below Baltimore. Three other teams – the Astros, Yankees and Royals – are all potentially within striking distance behind Seattle.

Winning two of three would put Seattle one game out a playoff spot with 10 games to go while a sweep would put the Mariners in the driver’s seat. 710 ESPN Seattle’s Mike Salk says getting swept would all but eliminate their postseason chances.

“I would argue this is the biggest series the Mariners have played since, when? Certainly in my time here,” Salk said on Monday. “You’ve got Toronto, by some gift of the schedule makers, coming to your building when they’re the team you’re chasing … on Sept. 19. You’re supposed to be playing all AL West teams right now and, instead, you randomly have a home series against the team that you are chasing for the second wild card. It is a gift from the gods. The question is: can they take advantage?”

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The Mariners were last in the hunt for a playoff berth this late in the season in 2014, but they were ultimately relying on other teams to lose. The difference now is that Seattle can control its own destiny by sweeping Toronto. And few will have as much pressure to perform than Felix, who is scheduled to pitch the finale against Toronto on Wednesday, at Houston the following Tuesday and in the final game of the regular season, at Safeco against the A’s on Oct 2.

For all of Felix’s accomplishments – the Cy Young award, his perfect game, six all-star appearances, more than 2,200 strikeouts – he has never pitched in the playoffs. And in the few times he’s been in a position to establish his legacy as a big-game pitcher, he has underwhelmed.

On Sept. 23, 2014, Felix lasted less than five innings against the Blue Jays, surrendering eight runs (four earned) during the team’s 10-2 loss. In his most recent start, on Sept. 16 against Houston, Felix gave up six runs (five earned) in 4 1/3 innings during the team’s 6-0 loss.

“Your ace has got to be the ace,” Brock Huard said. “We have waited a dozen years for Felix to have some of these opportunities. Two years ago in 2014, he melted down as well. In 2014 in Toronto, when he had to have it, he was at his worst.

“Felix, you have waited, we have all clamored, you have heard the national narrative that, ‘Oh, what a bummer that Felix just doesn’t get a chance in prime time.’ You get it.”

In the upcoming series, the Blue Jays will roll out journeyman starter Marco Estrada, followed by 19-game winner J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez, who is 13-2 on the season. The Mariners counter with the resurgent Taijuan Walker, Hisashi Iwakuma and Felix. The Blue Jays’ offense statistically ranks in the bottom half of the league with a .248 team batting average but is just ahead of Seattle with 208 home runs, third most in the league. The Blue Jays are averaging an MLB-worst 3.4 runs per game in September, according to ESPN Stats & Information, but still feature some of the MLB’s top sluggers.

Besides the pitching matchup, the Mariners will need more from the middle of their lineup than they got against Houston. The trio of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager – which has been so productive all season – combined to go 6 for 32 in the series.

“I know you got a win (Sunday) because of Seth Smith, (Nori) Aoki, (Ariel) Miranda, etc., but you know what I think is going to win the series against the Blue Jays … 3-4-5 and 1,” Salk said. “I’m talking about Cano, Cruz, Seager and Felix.”

Salk believes Seattle could lose the series against the Blue Jays and still be in the race but that that now is the time for the Mariners to show their consistency.

“You could lose the series and still find a way back into this, but it’s going to take a lot of help,” Salk said. “If you want to have any amount of control over what’s going on and not just sit there every day, praying that the Blue Jay, Orioles or Tigers lose enough games to help you out, you’ve got to go take at least two out of three from Toronto this weekend. You get to control your fate; now let’s see if they can go do it.”

The question is, which Mariners team shows up?

“It is just as likely that they sweep the Blue Jays as it is that they make giant mental mistakes that end up leading to their disaster,” Salk said. “I have no clue what they are going to do from day to day. But as (manager Scott) Servais has said and we heard (Mariners CEO John) Stanton say it last week as well: that’s kind of what makes it fun. I’ve got no idea what is coming but I know I’m going to be watching for these next three nights.”

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