In the closest thing to playoff baseball to be played at Safeco Field in more than a decade, the Mariners — a team that has been relegated to playing meaningless games in the final months of 10-plus miserable seasons — didn’t shy away from the moment.
They relished it.
It helps that the man who has played in more big games and has the most postseason experience of anyone on the team delivered one of his best performances in a Mariners’ uniform.
Robinson Cano started the seminal sixth inning with a solo homer and punctuated the seven-run explosion by nearly hitting another (instead settling for a run-scoring double), turning a tense game into a 11-1 laugher over the Toronto Blue Jays.
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“That was a good inning,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “He kind of ignited us there.”
The anticipation leading into the three-game series was palpable. The Mariners and Blue Jays are vying for the last spot in the postseason — the second wild-card spot. They came into Monday night each 1½ games behind the Kansas City Royals.
But on this night, with a packed house of 41,168 — almost 60 percent Blue Jays fans — turning Safeco electric with energy, only one team played like a postseason-caliber squad.
“When I played New York and Boston, that’s how it felt tonight,” Cano said. “There is no situation as a player for you to get nervous, when you know how to play this game and you’ve played it for so long.”
It helped that the Mariners’ two best players — two of the best in all of baseball — delivered outstanding performances with Cano at the plate and Felix Hernandez on the mound.
The Mariners (63-55) held a tenuous 2-1 lead going into the bottom of the sixth, already squandering a couple of prime scoring opportunities. Would this be another offensive struggle where two runs was going to have to be enough for Hernandez and the Seattle bullpen?
Not for Cano.
He stayed on a 91 mph fastball from Jays’ starter Drew Hutchison that sat on the outside corner, driving it hard to left field and putting it over the wall, just inside the foul pole for his 10th homer of the season. It was his first solo home run of the season.
“Everything that I saw was away,” Cano said. “I saw a few in, but they were balls. I was just trying to go the other way, not trying to hit a homer. Just put a good swing on it. Thank God that one went out.”
Up 3-1, the Mariners could have breathed a sigh of relief. They are 32-8 in games when they score three runs or more. But Seattle was just getting started.
Kyle Seager drew a one-out walk and scored all the way from first when Mike Zunino belted a triple off the wall in right field to make it 4-1. With two outs, the ageless Endy Chavez delivered his second hit of the game, doubling inside the third-base bag to score Zunino to make it 5-1.
Blue Jays manager John Gibbons finally lifted Hutchison. He called on left-hander Brad Mills to stop the bleeding. Instead, Mills only opened it up more.
Brad Miller, who hadn’t played in six games, tripled to the right-center gap to score Chavez. Austin Jackson walked and Dustin Ackley scored both runners with a single up the middle. Cano stepped to the plate for the second time in the inning, and nearly got his second homer, lining a ball off the wall in left-center to score Ackley.
That was more than enough run support for Hernandez, who had been cruising for the first six innings, allowing just one run — a solo homer from Jose Bautista in the fourth inning — and two hits.
After a near 20-minute bottom of the sixth, Hernandez pitched a scoreless seventh and was done after 96 pitches. He extended his MLB record streak of consecutive starts of pitching seven innings or more and allowing two runs or less to 16. Hernandez has a 1.41 ERA over those starts. He improved to 13-3 on the season and lowered his ERA to 1.95.
“It was a key game right there,” Hernandez said. “We’re finding something. We fight and do the little things.”
Up 9-1, the Mariners weren’t finished as they tacked on two more runs in the eighth to make 11-1.
The M’s bullpen didn’t allow a hit in two innings.
Besides the two big hits in the sixth, Cano was also stellar in the field with aggressive throws and absurdly difficult catches.
“He’s just the best at that position,” McClendon said. “It doesn’t surprise me.”
Ryan Divish: 206-464-2373 or firstname.lastname@example.org.