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April 17, 2008 at 11:26 AM

Kings for a day

That’s how the Mariners are feeling this morning after Felix Hernandez shut down the Oakland A’s, 4-2, in a complete game victory last night. I’ll take you on a video tour of the McAfee Coliseum within the hour, once we get some technical issues out of the way. For now, let’s look back on what last night’s ballgame meant to a Mariners team still reeling from early-season injuries to Erik Bedard and J.J. Putz.
For all of their troubles, the Mariners are suddenly back to .500 at 8-8 and just a game behind the first-place A’s and Los Angeles Angels. A big reason is the work of Hernandez and Carlos Silva. Simply put, that duo is doing the job that Bedard and Felix Hernandez were supposed to be doing. Bedard was supposed to be what Hernandez is right now, while 22-year-old Hernandez was supposed to be a little closer to what Silva is doing.
Silva and Hernandez are both 2-0. They have gone at least seven innings in six of their seven starts between them — Silva doing it in all three of his contests. Jarrod Washburn has done it once, making that seven outings of at least seven innings by a Seattle starter already. Do any of you remember how long it took the Mariners to receive seven such starts last year? Not until they were well into the month of May.

The results of that work are out there to see. Seattle currently has the best winning percentage of any American League team against clubs from its own division. The M’s are at 5-2 against the AL West so far, going 2-1 versus Texas, 2-1 against the Angels and 1-0 with the A’s.
Yes, it is very early. This is a small sample size and a few losses in a row will negate that 5-2 record quickly.
On the other hand, this is the stuff we talked about last winter when it came to determining whether or not Seattle truly had a chance to win the AL West. Or the wild-card race. We talked about the need for the M’s to play well within their own division. Talked about how the Mariners had to get more seven-inning outings out of starters to spare the bullpen.
Especially this bullpen, right now. The M’s have lost their closer, have yet to see a pitch thrown by their main righty setup man and have banished their situational lefty to Class AA. Not only that, but the “ace” pitcher they acquired over the winter is on the DL as well. On most teams, that spells disaster, especially when you combine it with a bunch of hitters batting .200 or less the first two weeks of the season.
But the Mariners have survived. They are a .500 team as of today. They may be a .500 team a month from now, but that’s OK. They did not wither up and die, or let the gap between them and the division leaders get out of hand. They have gone 6-3 since leaving Baltimore, playing against three teams with winning records so far. They are within a game of the division lead. And they are still working through some early season injuries and warts in both the bullpen and on offense. It could be a lot worse.
What last night’s game by Hernandez also did was buy his team some wiggle room for this weekend in Anaheim. Let’s face it, the M’s would probably have prefered to go with something other than R.A. Dickey, Washburn and Miguel Batista on the mound in that series.
In a worst case scenario, they lose all three games. Better off to do that with your team tied for the division lead, or a game out, than when you’re already three games out. A couple of days ago, the Mariners were three games out of first place. They have shaved a couple of games off that lead and won the contest they had to last night.
They now know, no matter how badly things go from here, there is no chance they come back from this road trip a half-dozen games back before the season is even three weeks old. A couple of days ago, that was looming as a serious possibility.
And no matter how early it still is in a season, no team wants to be six out at any time. You can spend an entire season trying to make up such a gap. As of now, the M’s won’t have to worry about a gap like that forming on this trip. In fact, if they can take the finale of this short series tonight, they can head in to Anaheim relatively relaxed and confident. At the very worst, they would finish the trip 2-3. more than likely, they could go 3-2 or even 4-2. With Silva taking the mound tonight, that 2-0 start to this trip has a good chance of happening. That’s what improved starting pitching — and an ability to go seven innings or more, limiting the exposure of a fragile bullpen — can do for a club.
The M’s have lost only one of their first five series this season. No matter what happens tonight, that stays the same.
Considering what’s gone on, that’s nothing to sneeze at. For now, the next few hours, at least, they are kings for a day.
NOTE TO AL IN COMMENTS THREAD, 12:40 p.m.: You’re right about my goof-up on Hernandez’s one-hitter (not two-hitter) in Boston last year. Guess he was in better form than me last night. Know when I realized that mistake? In my head at 7:15 a.m. today when I was trying to sleep until 9. Woke up with the “ah-ha!” realization that I’d messed up. No chance of snoozing after that one. Stresses you out a little. My apologies.



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