With 2 1/2 months of baseball left, it's a bit early to call any series 'critical,' so let's just say the Rangers-Mariners series that starts tonight could tighten the divisional race in the American League West.
It opens with Seattle 4 1/2 games behind Texas, and the Mariners set their rotation up to start Felix Hernandez, Brandon Morrow, Jarrod Washburn and Erik Bedard.
That's the best they have, with no offense intended to lefties Jason Vargas and Garrett Olson.
No matter what happens in the next four games, there will be time for the Mariners to make runs at the top. But making a move by taking three of four games would be a feel-good finish to the traditional first half of the season for a team that's played hard to get and stay above .500.
Win three of four and Seattle gets to the All-Star break with a 46-42 record. The Chicago Cubs, New York Mets, Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays would all take those numbers.
Tonight, it's Felix vs. Tommy Hunter, in the last start before Hernandez heads for the All-Star game in St. Louis.
The center fielder can hit
Ken Griffy J. drew a walk, his 41st of the season, and Franklin Gutierrez banged a single into left field - extending his career-best hitting streak to 12 consecutive games.
With runners at first and second and no one out, the Mariners had the first point-blank scoring opportunity - but never moved those runners as they went down 1-2-3.
After two: No score.
This Felix kid can pitch
Five days before his first All-Star game, Mr. Hernandez is pitching like an ace.
Against a tough Texas lineup, he's allowed one hit in four innings and no other batter has reached base.
The one problem? Seattle hasn't scored for him. This isn't the kind of pitching you can waste, not at home, not against a team you're trying to catch.
The Mariners need to scratch out a run, get Felix a lead, and ride their horse.
After four: No score.
The Mariners clearly are pushing every chance they get.
Ichiro singled in the third inning, his second infield hit of the night, and promptly stole his 18th base.
Now in the fifth, Rob Johnson singled and Ronny Cedeno bunted him to second base. Ichiro grounded out. Russell Branyan was intentionally walked. Lopez popped out.
After five: No score.
Rangers score first
With two outs, Ian Kinsler walked and Michael Young singled - then the two pulled a double steal.
On a full count to Josh Hamilton, Felix unleashed a wild pitch - ball four - and Kinsler scored from third base.
Hamilton and Young tried a double steal, but Young was caught off base.
In the sixth: Rangers 1, Mariners 0
Getter stronger by the inning
Felix has thrown 111 pitches in eight innings, but just struck out the side in the eighth.
Great game, but not enough, so far. Hunter and the Rangers bullpen have been dominant when it mattered.
In the eighth: Rangers 1, Mariners 0
Oh, the humanity!
Ichiro opened the eighth with his third hit, a looping double to left field, setting the stage for a dramatic rally that almost never happened.
Reliever C.J. Wilson retired Branyan, Jose Lopez before Ken Griffey Jr. drew his second walk of the night, 42nd of the season.
The inning prolonged, Gutierrez hammered his 10th home run of the season, then had to take a curtain call as the crowd stood until he came back out of thre dugout.
After eight: Mariners 3, Rangers 1
That's a final
Back on the mound, David Aardsma threw a 1-2-3 ninth inning. Seattle is 3 1/2 games back.
It's a final: Mariners 3, Rangers 1.