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Pitching, hitting help give Mariners fighting chance at playoff berth

SEATTLE — The old Felix Hernandez would have objected when, with a 4-1 lead over Atlanta and a low pitch count after eight innings, he was pulled for Seattle closer Fernando Rodney in the ninth inning Tuesday night.

The 2014 version of Hernandez had no objections with first-year manager Lloyd McClendon's strategy, though, in the Mariners' 4-2 win over the Braves at Safeco Field.

McClendon is trying to limit his ace's work load by an inning here, an inning there as Seattle (58-54) enters the final 50 games of the regular season in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2001. So Hernandez, having limited the Braves to four hits and thrown only 97 pitches through eight innings, was denied the opportunity for his first complete game of the season.

"I'm trying to play meaningful games in September, not have a pitcher throw a complete game in the first of August," McClendon explained to the media afterward. "My objective is to get this team as far as I can. Hopefully, that's the playoffs. I don't know if we can get there, but I want a Felix strong and moving forward in September."

Hernandez, who has wilted in September the past two seasons, was just fine with McClendon's decision.

"If he says I'm done, I'm done," said Hernandez, the front-runner to claim his second Cy Young Award in the American League. "I appreciate him looking out for me."

Hernandez continued his major league-record streak of 15 straight games pitching at least seven innings and allowing two or fewer runs against an Atlanta team that has seen its losing streak hit seven games.

"If he gets 22 in a row," McClendon deadpanned, "then I'll be impressed."

McClendon's biggest focus is keeping the Mariners among a crowded field in the race for the second and final AL wild-card spot. There are five teams with 2 1/2 games in the tight battle, with Toronto (60-54) ahead but Kansas City (58-53) a half-game back, the M's and New York Yankees (58-54) a game behind and Cleveland (56-55) training by 2 1/2 games.

Third baseman Kyle Seager admits the Seattle players are keeping tabs on the standings.

"You take a look where you're at," Seager said. "It's exciting. It's something we haven't been able to do the last couple of years. It's a lot of fun being in the hunt, being in the position to do some things."

Seattle has remained in the chase on the strength of the AL's best 1-2 punch at the front of the rotation -- Hernandez (12-3) and Hisashi Iwakuma (9-6) -- and Rodney, who is tied for the league lead with 31 saves.

"Last time I checked," McClendon said, "we had the best pitching in the American League."

McClendon is right. The Mariners entered Tuesday leading the AL in ERA (3.05), opponents' batting average (.225) and walks and hit per nine innings (1.143).

Last time I checked, though, they had the worst hitting in the league. Going into Tuesday's game, the Mariners were last in AL in run scored (421), on-base percentage (.297) and on-base percentage plus slugging (.667) and next-to-last in batting average (.243). They won Tuesday night despite getting only six safeties. Only All-Stars Robinson Cano (.329) and Seager (.274) have hit with any consistency this season.

The M's have tried to address that with several moves in the last two weeks, trading for three veterans -- designated hitter Kendrys Morales and outfielders Austin Jackson and Chris Denorfia -- and calling up rookie shortstop Chris Taylor from Triple-A Tacoma.

Morales, who hit .277 with 23 homers and 80 RBIs with Seattle last season, signed with Minnesota but has not had a productive 2014 and is batting .219. Jackson, acquired from Detroit, is hitting .270 and gives the Mariners a true leadoff man. Denorfia, who started the season with San Diego, is 1 for 10 so far with the M's. Taylor, who turns 24 on Aug. 29, is off to an excellent start, hitting .357 in nine games and providing solid and sometimes spectacular defense at shortstop.

"It's going to be huge for us moving forward," Seager said. "We know what Kendrys can do. Austin and Chris have a proven track record. They know how to handle the bats, and they're two good guys in the clubhouse as well."

McClendon hopes Jackson and Denorfia will fortify the outfield.

"We're only a few games in, but I will say this: They are both very professional hitters," McClendon said. "They give us much more balance in our lineup, particularly against left-handed pitching. It also gives us options on the bench. Will they help us? Yes. To what extent? I don't know."

McClendon seems most enamored of Jackson, 27, who hit .300 for the Tigers in 2012 and carries a career average of .277.

"Having the opportunity to get him was big for this ballclub for a lot of different reasons," the Seattle skipper said. "He has a career on-base percentage of .345. He's a prototypical lead-off hitter. He's not afraid to a take a 3-2 pitch, and if you're going to be a good leadoff hitter, you're going to take your walks.

"I think he's a Gold Glove type of center fielder, too. I don't think he's been given the recognition he should for his ability in center field. The other day in Baltimore, he caught up to a ball that most people thought was a double. Those things are normal for him."

The Mariners are building for tomorrow without sacrificing today.

"I'm excited," McClendon said. "We have a hand on the now and a hand on the future.

"There are a lot of pluses going into next year. Hopefully, we'll start with a healthy Iwakuma and (pitcher James) Paxton. We'll have Jackson in center. We're looking to make the club better in other ways. As far as the future is concerned, it's bright. We've laid a nice foundation. But this year ain't over yet. We still have a run at it."

McClendon means a run at the postseason. The Mariners believe.

"We know we can make it," Hernandez said. "We just have to continue playing good."

With the Los Angeles Angels all but locked into the AL's first wild-card berth, the Mariners must beat out four teams in the neck-and-neck battle for the second wild-card spot.

"We feel good," Seager said. "We're in it. Our pitching is always going to keep us in games. That's been our calling card. We feel really good about our chances down the stretch."

It's going to be about hitting. Much of it will be how much help the reinforcements provide. But as Seager said, the Mariners are in the race. It sure beats the alternative.

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