Seattle Mariners

Back-to-back homers help Hernandez outduel Lester in Mariners’ win

If Wednesday afternoon offered a preview of the American League’s wild-card game — and, yes, the Seattle Mariners still have some work to do — then the postseason will start with a bang.

Kyle Seager and Corey Hart hit back-to-back home runs in the seventh inning that enabled Felix Hernandez to outduel Jon Lester as the Mariners edged the Oakland Athletics, 2-1, at O.co Coliseum.

This is what the Hunt for October feels like, Mariners fans, and Hernandez, after so many meaningless Septembers, is among the many who are reveling in the chase.

“It feels great,” he said. “I’m telling you, it’s fun. We came here to win the series. That’s what we did. Going up against Lester, I knew it was going to be tough.”

It was that and more.

The drives by Seager and Hart were no-doubt bombs against Lester, the Bellarmine Prep graduate who was The News Tribune’s All-Area player of the year in 2001, and countered a towering homer by Adam Dunn against Hernandez in the fourth inning.

“You get that matchup, you know it’s going to be hard to come by some runs,” Seager said. “Fortunately, we were able to get two, which was enough with Felix and (Fernando) Rodney.”

Both starters pitched through the eighth before Rodney protected Hernandez’s win with a one-two-three ninth inning for his 41st save in 44 chances. Rodney’s save came roughly 18 hours after he nearly squandered a three-run lead Tuesday night before closing out a 6-5 victory.

“It was back-to-back games,” he explained. “I’m more comfortable. If you look at the last 14-15 games, I only pitched like four or five innings. You get inconsistent.

“But the more often I pitch, the better my command. I’m not going to miss the strike zone.”

The victory boosted the Mariners to 75-63 and pulled them one-half game behind Detroit (76-63) in the battle for the AL final wild-card berth. The A’s are currently positioned for the first wild-card berth.

So, the Mariners and A’s could meet again later this month in the wild-card game. If so, this preview will be tough to top.

Hernandez (14-5) limited the A’s to one run and three hits in winning for the first time in four starts. Lester (13-10) gave up two runs and seven hits.

Both were magnificent; Hernandez was just a little better in ending a three-start winless streak and — this seems incredible — winning a post-August start for the first time since a 2-1 victory on Sept. 6, 2011 at Anaheim.

Since then: 0-9 in 12 post-August starts with a 6.19 ERA.

“I know, right?” Hernandez said. “(Gee whiz), what am I doing? But I’m happy. This game was for my wife. It’s her birthday today.”

It helped, possibly, that he was pitching in the East Bay. Hernandez is 6-0 with a 1.98 ERA in nine starts at the O.co Coliseum since April 1, 2011.

“We’ve just got to score more,” A’s catcher Derek Norris said. “We can’t rely on a pitcher, Jon Lester or Sandy Koufax, to throw nine shutout innings.”

Manager Lloyd McClendon pointedly cited another possible reason for Hernandez’s success — a recent decision to provide extra rest for everyone in the rotation just prior to the September stretch drive. McClendon said he believes that decision attracted excessive criticism during a 2-5 stumble prior to wins in the past two games.

“(Hernandez) was special today and, I might add, he was rested,” McClendon said. “I’m like (former basketball coach) Bobby Knight. When I die, you can bury me face-down. So all of you can kiss my (backside).”

That outburst might also reflect that McClendon, and all the Mariners, realized this wasn’t just another game. The Mariners won a September road series against a contender because their ace outpitched the opponent’s ace.

“If you want to be the best,” McClendon said, “you’ve got to beat the best. It sounds cliché-ish. But it’s just the way it is. You’ve got to beat big pitchers.

“You’ve got to grind the at-bats out, and know they’re going to get theirs. Somehow, you find a way to win ballgames. We beat a real good pitcher today. We found a way to win a ballgame.”

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