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Felix, Iwakuma provide potent one-two punch

Mariners' outstanding pitching has American League foes taking notice @TracyRingolsby

SEATTLE -- In discussing his starting rotation, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons admitted there isn't that "Katie bar the door" dominant No. 1, but there are five quality arms with an ace-in-progress with the arrival of rookie Marcus Stroman.

So, Gibbons was asked, if he had one game to win, which starter would he call upon.

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Gibbons smiled.

"Felix," he said.

As in Felix Hernandez, the ace of the Mariners' rotation. He is the guy who got Seattle started on its way to a three-game sweep of Toronto this week that culminated with a strong-armed effort by Hisashi Iwakuma in a 2-0 win on Wednesday night that left the Mariners in a virtual tie with Tigers for the No. 2 AL Wild Card spot and dropped the Jays to three games back.

And it's the presence of Hernandez, along with Iwakuma, that has the rest of the AL well aware that the Mariners are a team that could very much be a factor not only in the battle for a spot in the postseason, but in the postseason itself.

Oh, Seattle had to do some quick-fix work with the offense prior to the July 31 non-wavier Trade Deadline, providing some right-handed balance to the lineup, and a veteran influence for what has been a relatively youthful lineup.

And it was two of those July additions who provided the two runs the Mariners scored on Wednesday -- Austin Jackson leading off the first with a single and Kendrys Morales delivering a two-out home run three batters later.

It, however, is Seattle's pitching that makes two more than enough.

After the seven dominant innings from Hernandez in Monday's 11-1 victory, and a six-inning, one-run effort from Chris Young in Tuesday's 6-3 victory, it was 6 2/3 shutout innings from Iwakuma that provided the foundation for the Wednesday victory, which put the finishing touches on the Mariners' 8-1 homestand.

And now Seattle heads to Detroit on Friday to open a three-game series against the Tigers, looking to get an edge in the Wild Card race and counting on lefty James Paxton.

Paxton will making only his sixth start of the season and third start since coming off the disabled list, but already has caught the attention of manger Lloyd McClendon as a key for the Mariners' postseason hopes.

Seattle's staff has been eye-opening this year. With a 2.95 team ERA, the Mariners are on pace to obliterate the franchise record 3.54 set in 2001 and become the first AL team with a sub-3.00 ERA since the 1974 World Series champion Oakland A's.

Not only does Seattle lead the Major Leagues in overall ERA, but it is at the top of the AL in both bullpen (2.34) and rotation (3.24) ERA, and McClendon thinks things can get even better because of the return of Paxton, who spent nearly four months on the disabled list.

And the staff has extended its club record for consecutive games with three runs or fewer to 12, during which time the team is 9-3 and the staff has a 1.77 ERA.

The Mariners did suffer an eight-game losing streak back in April, but it is worth nothing that they not only had Paxton and Iwakuma on the disabled list at that time, but Elias was adjusting to the jump from Double-A to the big leagues. And Young wasn't even signed until the final week of Spring Training after missing the bulk of last season because of surgery to repair thoracic outlet syndrome.

Elias and Young adapted quickly and have become excellent accessories for Iwakuma and Hernandez.

The four are a combined 44-24 this year. Paxton is 2-0 in his five starts, but the five pitchers who filled in the rotation void while he was sidelined were a combined 3-11.

"This young man could be the glue to our rotation," said McClendon. "You don't find guys like Paxton very often. He's a 95-to-99 [mph] left-hander with a good changeup and breaking ball. He gives us the opportunity to carry over as far as being dominant. I think he's going to be special down the stretch."

The domination, however, starts with Hernandez -- who along with Young, are the only members of the rotation to make every start -- and Iwakuma, who spent the first month of the season on the disabled list.

Hernandez has run off a Major League record streak of 16 consecutive starts in which he has worked at least seven innings and allowed two runs or fewer. Impressive? Heck, that's an inning longer and a run less than the overhyped "quality start" criteria.

"When Felix is on the mound you figure your team is going to win," said McClendon.

How important is Hernandez to Seattle's overall psyche? So important that McClendon was willing to send Elias to the Minor Leagues for a 10-day stretch so that Hernandez could be pushed back a day in the rotation and draw that series-opening showdown with the Blue Jays.

And then there is Iwakuma, who is so good that he is called underrated, even though he did finish third in the AL Cy Young Award voting a year ago. He has started four of the Mariners' eight shutouts, is 6-2 with a 1.83 ERA in his past nine starts, and has gone 18-8 with a 2.53 ERA in 34 starts over the past 13 months.

"I feel pretty good," said McClendon.

Having the likes of Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma can do that for a manager.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for

Seattle Mariners, Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Marcus Stroman, Chris Young