Hernandez continues Cy campaign

Hernandez continues Cy campaign

SEATTLE -- By the time Ken Griffey Jr.'s soaring three-run home run left the yard to ice the Mariners' 6-4 win over the A's on Tuesday night, Seattle right-hander Felix Hernandez had to have let out a sigh of relief.

Or was it a Cy?

Sure, the Mariners won their 81st game of the season, which means they won't finish with a losing record a year after going 61-101, ensuring one of the most memorable single-season turnarounds in Major League history.

But that fact, sure to please the 18,167 in attendance at Safeco Field on Tuesday, was a mere afterthought in the clubhouse conversation that's been getting louder and louder with each one of Hernandez's sterling September starts.

In other words, the Mariners' 23-year-old sensation has not only arrived, but he seems to have solidified his standing as one of the three pitchers in the running for the American League Cy Young Award.

Hernandez, who improved to 18-5, lowered his ERA to 2.48, struck out four and gave up two runs in 7 2/3 innings while throwing a career-high-tying 120 pitches, might finish behind Kansas City's Zack Greinke or New York's CC Sabathia, or both. But his numbers and a host of intangibles continue to prove it wouldn't be surprising if he didn't.

"Number one is the impact he's had on this club and the turnaround of this club," said Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu. "Being 23 years old, but also, statistically, I think there's several different stats that support that. And I think what he's done as of late in a situation where everybody is vying for that, he's pitched as well as anybody in baseball.

"And the teams he's pitched against. You go down the list, and for me, it's awfully exciting to watch where this guy came from at the beginning of the year and the things that he's learned to become and grow into arguably the best pitcher in the game."

Here are a few of the numbers:

Hernandez turned in his 28th quality start, which leads the AL and is a Mariners record, and has lasted seven or more innings in seven straight starts. Since Aug. 28, he is 6-0 with a 1.68 ERA. During that stretch, his ERA is the lowest in the Majors.

Moreover, he's 5-0 in September with a 1.59 ERA, and he's the only pitcher in the AL to rank in the top four in the three Triple Crown statistics of wins (18, second), ERA (2.48, second) and strikeouts (211, fourth).

And he's Seattle's stopper, too. Twenty-three of Hernandez's 33 starts this year have followed a Mariners loss, and he's 15-4 in those games.

Even on Tuesday, when Hernandez described himself as "too strong" after a Monday off-day, he willed his way out of jams, stranding multiple runners on base in multiple innings.

"His command wasn't quite as good as we've seen it in the past, but he's obviously one of the premier pitchers in the game," A's manager Bob Geren said. "We had guys on base almost every inning, and he made good pitches to get out of it."

He also got offensive help from the Mariners -- specifically, their elder statesman.

The Mariners had taken a 1-0 lead in the second inning when Griffey drew a leadoff walk from A's starter Trevor Cahill, took third on an Adrian Beltre double, and scored on a Bill Hall groundout.

Hernandez had a hiccup in the top of the fourth when he walked Jack Cust, uncorked a wild pitch that sent Cust to second, allowed Cust to reach third on a Daric Barton groundout and surrendered the tying run on a Mark Ellis single.

But the bottom of the fifth was Griffey's time to shine.

Josh Wilson led off with a double and Ichiro Suzuki singled him to third, setting up Franklin Gutierrez for a sacrifice fly that gave the Mariners a 2-1 lead. After a Jose Lopez single moved Ichiro to second, Griffey unloaded on the first pitch he saw, a two-seam fastball, and lofted it high and far into the right-field seats to make it 5-1 and give the Mariners all the runs they'd need.

"It's always majestic," Wakamatsu said. "It doesn't show age, that swing. It's a beautiful swing no matter how you look at it."

Two batters later, Mike Carp singled and Hall doubled him in to complete the Seattle scoring, which helped, because Hernandez gave up another run in the eighth and closer David Aardsma allowed two more in the ninth.

But Aardsma got the final out, preserving No. 81 for the Mariners, meaning they cannot have a losing 2009 season and can make it a winning campaign by winning one of their final five.

"It feels good," Hernandez said. "It's very different this year, in the clubhouse and on the field. It's great."

Doug Miller is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.