Felix Hernandez has put together an illustrious career as the ace of the Seattle Mariners for nearly a decade, with 2014 ranking as his best season yet.

However, Hernandez has tended to stumble a bit as each year winds down, owning a career 3.55 ERA in September, second worst of any month. His strikeout, walk and home run rates down the stretch have also been slightly worse than his career averages. 

The trend has been especially noticeable in the past three seasons after Hernandez posted a 4.11 ERA in the second half last year and ERAs above 5.00 in September of 2012 and 2011

Whether it be fatigue, random statistical noise with a small sample size or the fact the Mariners have always been out of the race by September, Hernandez has tended to give up more runs down the stretch. 

This year has to be different. With Seattle narrowly trailing in the wild-card race and a tough schedule coming up, it can’t afford to have Hernandez at anything less than full capacity.

When Hernandez turned in a couple of poor starts near the end of August, concern began to grow. Hernandez’s major league record of 16 consecutive starts with at least seven innings pitched and fewer than three earned runs came to an end on August 16 against the Detroit Tigers, and he lasted just 5.2 innings while allowing three runs in his next outing against the Boston Red Sox.

The worst start of Hernandez’s season followed that, as he gave up five runs in seven innings to the Washington Nationals. Most concerning was the fact that Hernandez gave up four home runs after just allowing nine all season up to that point.

As Tim Booth of the Associated Press highlights, that was not a typical outing for Hernandez.

Hernandez appeared to have trouble locating his devastating changeup and said he left too many pitches up in the zone, via Adam Lewis of MLB.com

“It was a tough day. I couldn’t get out of the middle of the plate the first four innings. I was up and I got crushed…Everything was off.”

Some of that was to be expected, as every pitcher around the league is dealing with fatigue at this point in the season and Hernandez wasn’t going to run a sub-2.00 ERA forever. Still, he looked off in those three starts and given his recent history in the final six weeks of seasons, there was reason to be a little troubled.

The Mariners pitching staff as a whole has been struggling over the past couple of weeks, at least compared to its previous run of form since the All-Star break. Hernandez is counted on to stop those streaks more than any other Seattle pitcher.

His turn in the rotation came last Wednesday against the Oakland Athletics with the Mariners needing a win to avoid dropping their third consecutive series. Fortunately for the Mariners, Hernandez returned right to form.

This is the latest in a season Hernandez has pitched a meaningful regular-season game since at least 2007, if not his entire career. He has been patiently waiting for a big stage (other than the All-Star Game) and certainly got one Wednesday against Jon Lester and an Oakland team that is suddenly only three games ahead of Seattle.

Hernandez delivered, allowing one run on three hits over eight innings. Other than an impressive Adam Dunn home run in the fourth inning, Hernandez was in complete control of the game.

Lloyd McClendon noted that Hernandez looked like himself bouncing back from the start against Washington, via Greg Johns of MLB.com

“He had tremendous command, he was down in the zone, he was 94 [mph] when he wanted to be 94, he elevated when he wanted to elevate. He made one bad pitch on a swing-back fastball that ran back over the plate just a little too much. But he was vintage Felix today.”

That home run looked like it was going to be enough to beat the Mariners, as Lester cruised through the first six innings. Kyle Seager and Cory Hart than launched unexpected back-to-back shots, giving Seattle a 2-1 victory and much-needed series win.

Hernandez has been far more dominant in other starts, as he struck out just four to two walks. But the fact that allowing five baserunners in eight innings against a tough lineup isn’t Hernandez at his most dominant speaks to his own lofty standards.

With the intensity ratcheted up, Hernandez proved he will keep pitching at the same level this time around.

That’s a huge positive for the Mariners. They trail a Detroit Tigers team, which seems like it should catch fire at any time, by half a game in the wild-card standings. Seattle simply needs to win every time Hernandez takes the mound here on out.

Hernandez is the perfect pitcher to take the mound in a one-game playoff. He will just have to lead the Mariners there first.

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