OAKLAND -- For the Mariners to have any chance of getting back into playoff contention, they need a healthy James Paxton. They also need to beat the A's.
Consider Saturday night a shining success on both fronts as Paxton came off the 10-day disabled to allow two hits and three runs over five innings and the Mariners held on for an 8-7 victory over Oakland to pull back within 4 1/2 games in the race for the American League's second Wild Card berth.
"Just the way we like 'em, one-run games," Seattle manager Scott Servais said with a wry smile after his club improved to an MLB-best 33-18 in one-run decisions. "That's the only way we can play them. But it was a good ballgame. … This was a game we had to have tonight."
After splitting the first two games of the four-game series, Saturday loomed as close to a must-win situation as you can muster with a month remaining. Seattle took care of business with their biggest scoring output since an 8-6 win in Houston on Aug. 9.
The Mariners needed all of that offense when the A's scored four runs in the eighth off Alex Colome and Edwin Diaz, the final three runs coming on a bases-loaded double when Diaz left a slider over the plate to Marcus Semien.
But Diaz struck out Matt Chapman to strand the tying run at second, then worked around a leadoff walk in the ninth to nail down his Major League-leading 51st save. Diaz struck out Matt Olson swinging to end the game, the 18th strikeout of the night for Seattle's staff.
"I missed one pitch to get in trouble, but after that I made my pitches," said Diaz, who hadn't pitched since the previous Saturday. "These games mean a lot to us. We are chasing that team and they are playing good baseball. Today was a big win for us."
The Mariners desperately need to gain ground on the A's in these head-to-head battles to give themselves a chance down the stretch and they'll go into Sunday now with Felix Hernandez on the mound and a shot at narrowing the margin to 3 1/2 games with a series win.
Paxton did his part with a 10-strikeout performance in his first outing since being knocked out by a line drive off his left forearm by the A's Jed Lowrie on Aug. 14. The big lefty walked four and was lifted after five innings as his pitch count reached 98, but he improved to 11-5 with a 3.74 ERA and raised the Mariners' hopes with the return of their No. 1 starter for the stretch run.
• Mariners bolster roster with Paxton, 6 callups
"It's huge," said Servais. "And not just getting him back, but getting back the good Pax. The down time was important for him to get his arm feeling better, but he also made a little adjustment mechanically and that's the guy we saw earlier in the season, driving down the hill and the tightness and depth to the curveball tonight was outstanding."
Paxton recorded his eighth game with double-digit strikeouts this year, but the first since July 1. The 29-year-old southpaw knows it's crunch time and he's eager to help.
"You always want to be a part of this kind of thing," Paxton said. "We're in the race and we've played some good games against these guys. Hopefully we can come out and get the series win tomorrow."
Paxton gave up a two-run homer to Mark Canha and then walked Matt Chapman and Lowrie as he wavered in the fifth, but dug deep to strike out Khris Davis to end that threat and then turned the game over to his bullpen.
"I felt good," Paxton said. "A little rusty with location. My timing felt a little off, but the stuff was good. I was just kind of shot-gun spraying in the zone a little and didn't have very good command. But I came out of it healthy, which was No. 1. I'll just continue to sharpen things up."
The A's went with their bullpen the entire game, using nine different pitchers while allowing 12 hits. Shortstop Jean Segura returned from a two-game absence with a bruised shin to go 3-for-4 with two RBIs and Ben Gamel was 2-for-4 with a double and two RBIs.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
The A's employed the Rays' "opener" strategy by starting reliever Liam Hendriks, then brought in lefty specialist Danny Coulombe with two on and two out in the second to face Gamel, who came into the game hitting .225 against southpaws compared to .297 vs. righties. But that ploy backfired when Gamel immediately ripped a two-run double to right field to give Seattle the early lead.
"Fortunately I've seen Coulombe a couple times," Gamel said. "I was just trying to get a good pitch to hit and he left a slider a little up. It's definitely different [facing a team changing pitchers every inning], but it's a game of adjustments and you've got to make them."
Mitch Haniger extended his hitting streak to 13 games, tying his career high, with a fourth-inning double while going 1-for-4 with a hit by pitch and a run scored. Haniger has the longest active streak in the Majors and is batting .321 (18-for-56) with four homers and 11 runs scored in that stretch.
HE SAID IT
"It's awesome, awesome. The different dimension he gives this team is huge. You know what you're going to get out of him every time out. It's awesome having him back." -- Gamel, on Paxton's return
Felix Hernandez (8-12, 5.49 ERA) gets the start in Sunday's 1:05 p.m. PT series finale against A's right-hander Edwin Jackson (4-3, 3.03). Hernandez is 0-6 with a 6.38 ERA in his last eight outings. He's 1-3 with a 4.13 ERA in four appearances vs. the A's this year, including the lone relief appearance of his career when he gave up two runs in 5 2/3 innings on Aug. 14.