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Why it's critical Felix rediscovers his mojo

MLB.com @williamfleitch

NEW YORK -- When you are discussing a team with the near two decades of misfortune and October-free baseball that the Seattle Mariners have, it is wise to tread carefully when tempted to wax optimistic. But it sure looks like the Mariners are going to make the playoffs this year. Despite a three-game losing streak, Seattle has a 6 1/2-game lead in the American League Wild Card race over the Angels, a team that just lost its extremely valuable two-way player and can barely stay above .500 despite one of the best players in baseball history having the best season of his career.

The Mariners have had more than their fair share of good fortune this season, including 23-10 record in one-run games and a 6-0 record in extra-inning games, but that good fortune is now historical fact: Those games have already been played, Seattle won them, they're in the books. Things are looking good. Fangraphs has the Mariners' playoff odds at 69.4 percent; Baseball Prospectus has them at 76 percent.

NEW YORK -- When you are discussing a team with the near two decades of misfortune and October-free baseball that the Seattle Mariners have, it is wise to tread carefully when tempted to wax optimistic. But it sure looks like the Mariners are going to make the playoffs this year. Despite a three-game losing streak, Seattle has a 6 1/2-game lead in the American League Wild Card race over the Angels, a team that just lost its extremely valuable two-way player and can barely stay above .500 despite one of the best players in baseball history having the best season of his career.

The Mariners have had more than their fair share of good fortune this season, including 23-10 record in one-run games and a 6-0 record in extra-inning games, but that good fortune is now historical fact: Those games have already been played, Seattle won them, they're in the books. Things are looking good. Fangraphs has the Mariners' playoff odds at 69.4 percent; Baseball Prospectus has them at 76 percent.

Considering this would be the first season since 2001 that the Mariners have made the postseason -- the longest drought of the four major men's North American professional sports leagues -- Seattle is instantly one of the most compelling stories in the sport. If the Mariners pull this off, this will be a dream season for their long-suffering fans, no matter what happens in the playoffs. But for all this Mariners love, there's one aspect of this that needs to work to make this perfect. There's one thing that'll make it right: Felix needs to be Felix.

Video: MLB Now analyzes Felix Hernandez's career

When Felix Hernandez was Peak Felix Hernandez, he was as purely joyous a pitcher to watch as any in the sport, a man who could dominate a game with seemingly effortless panache, the pitcher you'd create if you spliced the DNA of Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux. His perfect game in 2012, immortalized in writer Terry McDermott's terrific book "Off Speed," remains the last one the sport has seen and is perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing one of my lifetime, ending with Hernandez's arms raised in triumph, the signature image of his career, the one he'll be remembered for. Mariners fans have seen him as the chubby rookie -- "Fat Felix," he calls his young self -- evolve into the signature franchise hero of the post-Griffey, post-Ichiro era. He has been King Felix since he was a teenager; he has been a Mariner forever, and will be forever.

But it has been a while since he was Felix. He was last truly Felix in 2014, when he put up a 2.14 ERA and finished second in AL Cy Young Award voting. He dipped a little in '15, a little bit more in '16 and then not only fell off a cliff in '17 -- with a 4.36 ERA and a 5.02 FIP -- but also missed half his starts, going on the disabled list twice. Felix has been an incredible pitcher for the Mariners his whole career, but more than anything, he has been a durable one, making 30-plus starts in every season from 2006-15, maybe the most remarkable and underappreciated aspect of his career. But the past few years, Felix hasn't just been mortal; he's been average.

Perhaps most distressing, Felix's worst season has been this one, the year that Seattle, in just about every other way, is finally breaking through. Heading into Wednesday night's game at Yankee Stadium, he had the lowest strikeout rate of his career and had given up more than a hit an inning; his 5.44 ERA was the worst on the Mariners' staff by a wide margin, and he had allowed five earned runs or more in one-third of his starts, and zero in only one of them, his first one. Seattle is having its moment. But the guy who got the Mariners' fans through all the dark times of the past decade-plus wasn't along for the ride.

Which is why Wednesday night, regardless of how Giancarlo Stanton's walk-off bomb might have ended it, was so important and vital for Felix and the Mariners. Felix has always been terrific at the new Yankee Stadium, with a career 1.44 ERA in 10 starts, and he was wonderful, if not necessarily efficient, again Wednesday, tossing five innings and giving up only one earned run with six strikeouts, leaving with a lead that Seattle would ultimately give up and then, ultimately, lose so dramatically.

Felix was facing one of the best lineups in the game, with the Mariners having lost two in a row and looking to get back level again, and he gave them precisely what they needed and exited the game with a three-run lead. He wasn't quite old Felix, but he was the ideal older Felix -- changing speeds, keeping Yankees hitters off balance and minimizing damage when runners were on base. Until Stanton and Co. ruined the happy story, it was Felix as Seattle most desperately wants him to be.

Video: SEA@NYY: Hernandez fans Frazier to end the 2nd inning

For all Felix's struggles this season, he has improved of late; he had an ugly game against Tampa Bay on June 9, but otherwise, he has now had three excellent starts this month.

"I feel pretty good. I feel 100 percent," Hernandez said after the game. "I think the last two starts are the Felix that I am. I'm making good pitches, throwing good fastballs, good curveballs, good changeups, so I'm glad."

You know Felix is feeling closer to being Felix again, because he's back to speaking about himself in the third person. Always a good sign.

Which leads to the tough question: If the Mariners are able to reach the playoffs this season, like appears likely (if hardly inevitable), what about Felix? After all, the central narrative of Seattle's postseason drought has been how it has deprived us all from seeing Felix Hernandez in the October cauldron, how he might be the best pitcher of the past 50 years never to pitch so much as one playoff game. And now, here we are, with the Mariners having their best opportunity to finally do it in a decade ... and it's not clear how Felix will be a part of it.

Imagine this particular scenario: The Mariners do indeed win the second Wild Card spot, ending the drought, and they travel for the AL Wild Card Game to Boston, or even, say, New York. Even with an improved Felix, Seattle likely wouldn't slate him to start a win-or-go-home game, though it might consider it if it were at Yankee Stadium, where he has pitched so well. But most likely, that game is started by James Paxton. So what if the Mariners lose it? What if Seattle reaches the playoffs, at last giving Felix the October opportunity denied him ... and he never gets in the game? That would be the cruelest irony; Felix Hernandez pitches magnificently for disappointing Mariners teams, but is shut out when their breakthrough finally happens.

The Mariners are in the best shape, postseason-wise, as they've been in years. But Seattle's arc, as has been the case for Felix's entire career, isn't in sync with his. Wednesday night provided hope that Hernandez can still be a vital part of this potentially historic season. One just hopes, if the Mariners make to where they want to go, Felix isn't forgotten when they get there.

Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.

Seattle Mariners, Felix Hernandez