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Mariners surge into playoff contention thanks to pitching staff trending toward record season

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SEATTLE - This is how good Felix Hernandez has pitched in making himself the clear leader for a second Cy Young award.

The ace of the Seattle Mariners has set the pace for a pitching staff that's on a record pace not seen from an American League team in 40 years and is the reason that Seattle is playing meaningful baseball in August for the first time in seven years.

Seattle is in the mix for the second wild card in the American League after winning eight of nine and it's because of a pitching staff that has a combined 2.95 ERA, led by the brilliance of Hernandez.

"I think we're all just worried about doing our jobs and if we go out and do our jobs one pitch at a time that stuff all takes care of itself," said starter Chris Young, signed by Seattle at the end of spring training and now with 11 victories.

Since the introduction of the designated hitter in 1973, no American League team has posted a lower ERA in a non-strike season than the Mariners have currently. The 1974 Oakland Athletics, with a pitching staff that included Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue and Rollie Fingers, finished the year with a 2.95 ERA. The Los Angeles Dodgers in 1989 were the last team in either league to finish the season with a sub-3.00 ERA.

The Mariners currently stand below that line after sweeping Toronto at home, giving up six runs in the series, and head to Detroit for a big three-game series starting Friday. Saturday's matchup will feature Hernandez facing off against David Price for the first time. Seattle is 10 games over .500 for the first time since the final day of the 2007 season, when Seattle finished the year 87-75.

Back in spring training, Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon preached that pitching would be the foundation in trying to get Seattle back to respectability.

"I can't say I knew we'd be this good," McClendon said. "This is historical."

Hernandez has gone 16 straight starts pitching at least seven innings and giving up two or fewer runs and has lowered his ERA to 1.95. His streak represents an accomplishment that doesn't even have an official title and that hadn't been matched since Gaylord Perry in 1974. The team has taken to referring to Hernandez's streak as an "Ultra Quality Start" although at the rate he's going it might as well be called "The Felix."

"I'm running out of words for Felix," McClendon said.

Hernandez is the pinnacle. Young has revitalized his career with a 3.20 ERA after not pitching in the majors in 2013 following shoulder surgery. Hisashi Iwakuma overcame a late start to the season and also has 11 wins. Rookie Roenis Elias has been a serviceable fourth starter after never pitching higher than Double-A before this season. And that group is backed by the best bullpen in the American League.

It's a remarkable run of pitching and it could get even better.

McClendon said the return of James Paxton recently from injury is almost equivalent to a free agent signing in the middle of the season. Paxton started the season in the rotation before a lat muscle injury and setbacks put him on the disabled list for more than three months.

In his two starts since returning, Paxton has allowed three earned runs.

"He can keep a roll going for us," McClendon said. "He can stretch those winning streaks out. If you look at our rotation throughout the year, the guy in the five hole has not been very successful. It's been patchwork. This guy can patch it, and it doesn't come loose."

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