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June 4, 2013 at 9:26 AM

Mariners need Felix Hernandez at his best tonight

Felix Hernandez takes the mound tonight in a game his team has to win for a shot at a rare series sweep. Photo Credit: AP

Felix Hernandez takes the mound tonight in a game his team has to win for a shot at a rare series sweep. Photo Credit: AP

It’s no secret that the Mariners have yet to sweep a series this year. Or, maybe it is a secret, since nobody around the country is really paying that much attention to the Mariners right now, so these things tend to slip by. But the Mariners — in case you were unaware — have yet to sweep a series this year. And that pretty much has to change starting right here and right now against a Chicago White Sox team that has lost seven in a row and can’t hit its way out of the proverbial paper bag even if you soak it for two days in advance.

The Mariners enter tonight eight games under .500, by virtue of last night’s win. If the Mariners hope to salvage this season — and yes, there is still time, though not an abundance of it — they will have to start winning big clusters of games in a hurry. If they can get back to .500 by the All-Star Break, then they will be right where many of us felt they needed to be when the season began. In a position to make a second-half run.

Now, that’s easier said than done when you’re eight below .500. Winning those big clusters of games simply can’t happen without a sweep or two somewhere along the way. Sure, you can hope to win two out of every three in each series the rest of the way, but the law of averages usually doesn’t work so cleanly. As we just saw with the Houston Astros taking down the Los Angeles Angels in four straight, you can usually count on a reverse sweep happening out of the blue someplace and that sets you all the way back to Square One in the “two out of three” scenario without a sweep of your own to keep the pace.

Sweeping will usually involve a solid turn through the rotation. In this case, it will involve a solid turn through three guys. And the Mariners now have it set up just perfectly. Joe Saunders did his part last night with a good outing. Now, the Mariners will have Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma going the next two days, at home against a reeling opponent that can’t hit.

In other words — and I haven’t said it often the past four-plus seasons — the Mariners need Hernandez at his best tonight. They need the ace to show up, not the facsimile who grits his way through six innings and gives up four runs. Not the guy who gives up three runs when the Mariners score only two. Not the guy with no command on his two-seamer. They need the guy who is an automatic victory. The guy who gives up three hits and wins a 1-0 shutout if need be. The complete-gamer.

Normally, I wouldn’t say that about any starter, baseball being as unpredictable as it is and the White Sox still having Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, Alex Rios, Dayan Viciedo and others who can pop a home run out of nowhere in any at-bat to turn the tables on any game.

But this is Hernandez we’re talking about. He’s getting paid $175 million for a reason. And that reason is to be the ace in games his team has to win.

And frankly, with all the chances his team has used up blowing a bunch of hard-luck games they should have won, there really is no more room for error for Hernandez to have an off-night.

There is no room for excuses here. Hernandez has to get it done. And then, Iwakuma will have to follow suit tomorrow.

As good as Hernandez has been over the years — historic, at times — he really hasn’t pitched in many must-win games for his team. The one that stands out in my mind is when he pitched at Yankee Stadium in September 2007 with his team still in the wild-card lead and beat the Yankees and Roger Clemens 7-1 with a five-hitter over seven frames.

That’s the Hernandez that needs to show up tonight.

Other times, his big games have been more on a personal level. He did the stuff needed to win the Cy Young Award back in 2010, could have won another in 2009 and has come out on top in his share of one-on-one duels against Adrian Beltre and other personal friends and rivals. There was also the perfect game last August in the middle of an 87-loss season going nowhere.

But this is different.

The Mariners have had almost zero expectations on them performance-wise the past several seasons until this year. Now, with the team off to a disappointing start two months in, the pressure is on to live up to the talent level that Raul Ibanez claimed last night is still very present in the clubhouse. If the Mariners fail to live up to that, there will almost certainly be consequences, as is now mentioned daily when it comes to which GM or manager might not survive the season.

In other words, there is some actual pressure on the Mariners to win some games right now. To meet some expectations. And to prevail in “must win” games.

This isn’t Game 7 of the World Series being played tonight, but if the Mariners are ever going to get this thing turned around, they almost can’t afford to let this rare sweep opportunity slip through their fingers.

Not with their two best starters going against a team that’s in the midst of collapse. So, yeah, this is a “must win” tonight and the guy they are paying the big bucks has to win it.

There have been a handful of other momentum-swinging games played this season that featured Hernandez as the starter and not all have gone well.

There was April 6 against these very White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field when the Mariners, having opened the season with a split in Oakland, then a hard-fought series opening victory at Chicago, took on the Chisox with a chance at a rare series win on the South Side. Things looked good with their ace on the hill, but Hernandez couldn’t hold a 1-0 lead, gave up four mid-game runs and took a 4-3 loss. The Mariners wound up losing the series and went on to sputter their way through April.

Still, that was fairly early on. The much bigger games came in May.

On May 19 in Cleveland, with the Mariners having dropped the first two games of their series, Hernandez went out looking to halt the streak and lost 6-0. The Mariners didn’t generate much offense against Justin Masterson that day, but being down 5-0 after just two innings sure didn’t help.

One rotation turn later, the Mariners had lost six in a row and Hernandez was facing the Texas Rangers. He gave up five runs in 5 2/3 innings and lost 5-2 with his team en route to an eight-game losing streak that has now altered the outlook on its season.

Sweeping the White Sox would be the first step towards changing that outlook. Nobody is putting that entire losing streak on Hernandez, but let’s face it, he is held to a higher standard and when he doesn’t bring his absolute best to key games, bad things happen for his team. That, once again, is why he is paid the big bucks — to win those pivotal games his team needs to prevail in. That is why the team has invested such a disproportionate amount of resources in him compared to the other 24 guys on the roster.

The time for development is supposed to be over. Now is when the Mariners are supposed to start playing games that matter. Winning games that actually have importance and meaning…and the pressure that comes with it.

There is some big-time pressure staring down the Mariners right now as they try to keep their season from skidding off the rails. They have their ace going tonight and need that ace to be the guy on the mound.

Can’t put it any simpler than that. Hernandez has to win this game, no matter what it takes. If he does, we can keep looking ahead and discussing what comes next for a Mariners team trying to dig out of a major-sized hole in June.

If his team doesn’t win this game, well…actually, that’s no longer an option. He has to find a way.



Comments | More in analysis | Topics: felix hernandez; sweep; hisashi iwakuma; joe saunders


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