The A’s have the best record in the majors at 51-33 and their +125 run differential is by far best in the league. The Angels trail them by 3.5 games in the AL West and lead the senior circuit’s Wild-Card chase behind an offense that has scored 403 runs, tied for third in the majors with the Toronto Blue Jays. They also have the star power that comes from employing Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton.
Viewed through that lens, it’s easy to see why the Mariners have received so little attention this season. But after finishing off a three-game sweep of the Astros with a 5-2 win Wednesday, they moved to 47-38, a game behind the Angels in what just might be baseball’s best division. Moreover, their +70 run differential trails only the A’s league-wide. They’re among the hottest teams in the majors, having won 10 of their past 12 games. At this point, the Mariners are not just a good story. They’re a real threat to nab a playoff spot in the AL.
Wednesday’s win over the Astros was a microcosmic representation of the Mariners’ season. First, they got a lights-out performance from their starting pitcher, a re-born Chris Young. He limited the Astros to two runs on two hits in seven innings, striking out eight while walking just one. They got enough offense with Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, per usual, right in the middle of things. They combined to go 3-for-6 with two walks and a hit-by-pitch, and scored the tying and go-ahead runs in the sixth on Logan Morrison’s two-RBI double. Finally, their bullpen shut it down over the final two innings. Danny Farquhar and Yoervis Medina teamed for a scoreless eighth, and Fernando Rodney worked a clean ninth to pick up his 24th save in 26 chances.
The rotation is the strength of this team and that group is led, of course, by Felix Hernandez. King Felix in on the short list of AL Cy Young candidates, a list that might only include him and the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka. In 18 starts spanning 128 1/3 innings this year, Hernandez is 10-2 with a 2.10 ERA, 1.95 FIP, 0.92 WHIP and 137 strikeouts versus just 22 walks. In what would be a terrible development for the rest of the AL, it seems Hernandez is getting better. He’s on pace for the best season of his career, and has already racked up 4.8 fWAR and 3.8 bWAR.
It’s not just Hernandez, though. The Mariners’ rotation has the second-best ERA in the AL and seventh best in the majors at 3.52. Hisashi Iwakuma started the year on the DL, but has amassed a 3.33 ERA, 3.47 FIP and 1.09 WHIP in 12 starts. Rookie Roenis Elias and his devilish curveball have been steadying influences in the middle of the rotation all year. The 25-year-old southpaw is 7-6 in 17 starts, has kept his ERA just beneath 4.00 and has fanned 7.5 batters per nine innings. As stated earlier, the veteran Young has experienced a resurgence in his 10th career season and first in the pacific northwest, going 8-4 with a 3.11 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in his first 16 starts.
The Mariners have been linked to the Cubs’ Jeff Samardzija, but they potentially just got the equivalent of a major trade when top prospect Taijuan Walker made his season debut on Monday. The 21-year-old fireballer was supposed to start the year in the rotation, but shoulder issues kept him sidelined for the first three months. His first win of the year kicked off the three-game sweep of Houston, as he allowed just three runs on five hits and two walks, fanning six batters in six innings. His average fastball sat at a touch over 94 mph, but it was his curveball that mystified the Astros. If Walker deals like the frontline pitcher he has been projected to be since the Mariners made him the 43rd overall pick in the 2010 amateur draft, they might not need to make a splash in the pitching market before the deadline.
Then there’s the bullpen, anchored by unlikely shutdown man Fernando Rodney. The bullpen’s 2.56 ERA is the third lowest in the majors, trailing only the Padres and Nationals. Rodney played with fire to start the year, but he now has a 2.23 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 38 strikeouts in 33 1/3 innings. Farquhar, Medina and rookie Dominic Leone have given Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon plenty of options from the right side to get to Rodney from the starters, and lefties are hitting just .152/.196/.205 against the ageless Joe Beimel.
If this team has a weakness, it’s definitely on the offensive side. While the Mariners have scored a respectable 359 runs this year, they’re hitting just .245/.303/.384. Their .303 wOBA ranks 24th in the league, while their 90 weighted runs-created-plus is tied for 21st. Cano isn’t hitting for much power, but he’s slashing a healthy .323/.379/.445. Seager leads the team with a .498 slugging percentage, .849 OPS and 13 home runs. Outside of those two, decent power from Mike Zunino and above-average production across the board from Michael Saunders, the offense has been lacking. With the team potentially set for its first trip to the playoffs since 2001, expect GM Jack Zduriencik to be active at the trade deadline, most likely in search of a bat that can add some thump to the middle of the lineup and preferably from the right side of the plate.