If Sunday was a glimpse of how the second half of the season will go, the Mariners eagerly will plant a sloppy smooch on it: Felix dominates and Cano eviscerates.
The premier tandem explained why the Mariners invested $415 million in their professional lives. Hernandez threw an eight-inning one-hitter, and Cano hit a two-run homer. Ballgame.
The 3-0 triumph over a decent Cleveland team in front of 26,171 at Safeco not only made for a third consecutive series win, it was further evidence that the Mariners are sufficiently competitive to prompt investment in the roster prior to the trade deadline.
At midseason, they have made the case that the postseason is reachable — Seattle is 23-14 against teams that entered Sunday with a .500 or better record — and maybe plausible if they can hire another veteran hitter or starting pitcher to win one game every 10 days or so that would otherwise be a loss.
It’s plain that the Mariners are competitive, and just as plain the talent strains to do so. In beating the Indians two of three, they scored six runs, an especially paltry total considering they were stifled by two obscure pitchers. Saturday, they were nearly no-hit by Josh Timlin, and Sunday rookie T.J. House, pitching his seventh major league game, messed with them until Cano took over.
It can be argued that in this era of overwhelming pitching that nearly every team’s offense will periodically look feeble. But few have been gone 12 years from the playoffs like the Mariners, and none of them invested $240 million in a single player promised to be THE difference-maker.
He did it in the sixth inning Sunday, taking House to the house with a laser shot into the right field seats for his fifth home run that broke a scoreless tie. But the set-up is what may have bothered House, and it was a little freakish.
Michael Saunders, who struck out three times, began the sixth with a swinging bunt that he beat out for the Mariners’ fourth hit only because House fielded the nubber and threw it past first baseman Nick Swisher. Saunders alertly made it a two-base error by running hard to third.
Up next was Cano, who in addition to being unhappy with an 0-for-14 slump, was further irked with a House offering that came at his head.
“Nobody likes a ball coming at your head,” Cano said. Moments later, he exacted his revenge with a ball over everyone’s heads.
But reliance on the failure of a rookie pitcher’s poise is a thin premise for contention. The Mariners have the capacity for big production, as they showed last week with 20 runs combined in the first two games of the Red Sox. And they are vulnerable to the swoon, with several position players in their first or second seasons.
The month before the trade deadline should be fraught with opportunity to add veteran muscle. As far as starting pitching, help from one direction is assured as soon as Monday — Taijuan Walker will make his season debut in the starting rotation when the Mariners begin a six-game road trip in Houston.
After Sunday’s game, OF Stefen Romero was sent down to AAA Tacoma to make room for Walker, who has rehabbed his shoulder into a position where he is back to being the guy that thrilled Mariners bosses in a September call-up.
The Mariners are careful to check their expectations for Walker. But Sunday, they were free to gush about Hernandez, who moved to 10-2 after allowing only a fifth-inning grounder up the middle off the bat handle of 3B Lonnie Chisenhall, a slow bounder that escaped the reach of Cano “by about a step,” he said.
Asked if he was disappointed in the soft hit, Hernandez — who in his past nine starts is 6-1 with a 1.30 ERA and is tied with the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka for the American League ERA lead at 2.10 — was unfazed.
“No,” he said, smiling. “It happens.”
Hernandez, pitching with an extra day of rest, said he had a strong command of his fastball, and he typically made Indians hitters look silly with his change-up. It was duly noted by Cleveland manager Terry Francona.
“He had everything working,” he said. “It’s hard to get a bead on him. He commands his fast ball, he spins a breaking ball, he throws a change-up often. He locates all of them.
Manager Lloyd McClendon was asked who in his playing experience he compares to Hernandez. After a pause, he came up with a good answer: A combination of Dwight Gooden and Greg Maddux.
“Good command, big hook, change-up and 94-95 mph fastball,” he said. “I don’t have the adjectives to explain him, other than he’s unbelievable.”
Hernandez and Cano are doing about all they can to deliver on their contracts. Now it’s up to Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik to deliver on his commitment to win this season.
Hernandez’s nine strikeouts gave him 1,840, surpassing Indians Hall of Famer Bob Feller for the sixth-most strikeouts in a career before the 29th birthday. He won’t be 29 until April 8 . . . He has allowed only one run to the Indians in their last 31 innings at Safeco . . . It was the fourth time he has pitched at least eight innings and allowed one or fewer hits . . . The back-to-back one-hitters at Safeco was the first time that’s happened in the American League since 1996 in Detroit’s Tiger Stadium. Ken Hill of the Rangers did it to the Tigers May 3 and teammate Roger Pavlik followed May 4. The National League saw the feat last season, when Gio Gonzales and Rafael Soriano of the Nationals did it at Nationals Park April 25 to the Reds, who responded with Jordan Zimmerman the next day . . . In their last 20 series, the Mariners have won 12, lost five and tied four.