CLEVELAND -- The Miami Heat have won three titles in the past decade, as notorious fan Felix Hernandez will proudly point out. But a recent defection in the ranks is all but certain to affect the bid for a fourth.
That defection was jokingly rubbed in Fernandez's face by Progressive Field's visiting clubhouse staff. For when Felix reported to his locker before Tuesday's series opener against the Indians, he found LeBron James' No. 23 Cavaliers jersey hanging prominently.
Asked if the decision by basketball's "King" would inspire a change in NBA allegiances, baseball's "King" smiled.
"Still Miami," he said.
The good news for King Felix is that he no longer has to live vicariously through the Heat's playoff exploits, because, for the first time in a long time, his Mariners have something to play for in the second half.
Though buried in an American League West race that features the two teams with the best records and run differentials in the sport -- the A's and Angels -- the M's are very much in the good graces of the Wild Card chase, entering Wednesday two games back of Toronto for the second spot. And while Hernandez was moving that LeBron jersey to the back of the rack, general manager Jack Zduriencik and all his top lieutenants were holed up in the team hotel a few blocks away, analyzing options for Thursday's non-waiver Trade Deadline.
Maybe, to some organizations, the thought of bidding boldly in the trade market for the sake of securing a spot in baseball's version of Russian roulette (likely on the road, no less, against the Angels or A's) is a precarious one.
But 12 seasons of October absences and the current alignment of stars could -- and should -- place particular emphasis on Seattle's here and now.
After all, Felix enters Wednesday's start against the Indians with 1,983 career innings attributed to his 28-year-old arm. Granted, he's the rare bird who has gotten better with less flash on his fastball (and, for that matter, with less fastball period, as he's only throwing it 45.7 percent of the time this season), but one need only look at the rash of Tommy John surgeries and sore shoulders in the game today to see how precious Hernandez, in his current form, really is.
And his grouping, at present, with Hisashi Iwakuma and Chris Young -- a trio that has compiled a collective 2.63 ERA over 60 appearances -- gives the M's a legit shot at staying coherent in a Division Series round, should it escape the one-and-done.
Beyond that, they've got star second baseman Robinson Cano, who might also never be more valuable than he is right now. In his age-31 season, Cano has seen the expected power drop-off that comes from the move to Yankee Stadium and its famous short right-field porch to Safeco Field. But in average (.327) and attitude and clubhouse acclaim, Cano has come as advertised, and the M's, even with continued growing pains for some of their young building blocks in Lloyd McClendon's first year at the helm, have been better than advertised.
"Every year, there's always a team you don't expect," Cano said. "Nobody had us in this spot right away. But here we are."
Last week's trade that returned Kendrys Morales to the lineup was the first indication of how seriously Seattle takes its playoff positioning, but the sense here was that it's not the last.
The Mariners dismissed FOXSports.com's report on anonymous GMs ripping Zduriencik's bartering style as so much grade-school-level whining. They're not looking to have their farm system fleeced, but they were exploring a wealth of options, whether it be an arm like Jon Lester or David Price to take that front-end rotation from elite to unstoppable or another outfield bat (Josh Willingham and Alex Rios are the headliners, though the Padres' Chris Denorfia could be a sneaky-good option from the right-hand side) to aid an offense averaging just 3.85 runs per game.
Again, we're talking here about the possibility of just one playoff game, if that. It's hard to say if the Mariners place enough value on that opportunity to part with the prized arms of Taijuan Walker or James Paxton (though both have suffered shoulder soreness at some point this year). But it's easy to say that, in the clubhouse, this playoff push is meaningful.
Indeed, among those on the active roster, only Cano, Young, Morales, Fernando Rodney, Endy Chavez and Corey Hart have experienced even a whiff of October. For the rest, including King Felix, this is a foreign feeling.
"It's good for the team, it's good for the city of Seattle," Hernandez said. "This is something that hasn't happened here for a while, and it's a different atmosphere. We're like a family. It feels different."
If Felix has been inspired by the opportunity, it shows. His current stretch is simply as good as the 2010 Cy Young Award winner has ever been. He's rattled off 13 straight starts of seven innings or more with two or less runs allowed -- an AL record.
That's not the kind of guy you'd want to face in a winner-take-all playoff game.
"We're trying to make the playoffs," Hernandez said. "That's the goal for me, that's the goal for everybody. That's why we signed Cano. And it could be this year."