For the Mariners, the short term is vital. In fact, the long term may depend on it.

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These are delicate and tense days for the Mariners, as baseball’s artificial but very real deadline for determining the validity of a season approaches rapidly.

That explains, at least partially, why closer Steve Cishek pounded his glove with unleashed emotion after getting Luis Valbuena on a called strike three, stranding Jose Altuve at third base and preserving a vital – aren’t they all? – and hard-earned 1-0 Seattle win over Houston.

Sure, a large part of Cishek’s outburst had to do with his personal struggles, a career-high (already) seven homers allowed and his fingerprints on some of the ugliest losses of the season.


Houston @ Mariners, 1:10 p.m., ROOT Sports

That last out, after a leadoff double had portended more agony, was particularly sweet, “and it was a little bit of aggression taken out on my glove,’’ he said with a smile.

But Cishek also recognizes that the Mariners essentially have two weeks until the Aug. 1 trade deadline to prove that they are legitimate playoff contenders. Entering the game with a .500 record, 8½ games behind division-leading Texas and five games out of the second wild-card berth, puts them squarely on the bubble.

“Obviously, we’ve got to beat these guys to have a chance,’’ Cishek said. “And right now’s the time. We have to prove also to the front office that we’re in this to win it. The Astros lose today, the Rangers lose today – it’s a good day for the Mariners.”

It’s easy to write the Mariners off given their ongoing struggles. While the Astros recovered from a horrible 17-28 start to go 32-13 with momentum on their side, the Mariners have headed in the opposite direction. After blazing to a 28-18 start and taking control of the division, they went 17-27 to find themselves, on Saturday, in the thick pack of teams flailing to stay relevant.

General manager Jerry Dipoto is no doubt watching closely as the Mariners face a vital slate of games against the Astros, White Sox, Blue Jays, Pirates and Cubs, contenders all, prior to the deadline. If things go dark and ugly, it’s conceivable to see the Mariners become sellers, which would put any number of players on the market as possible trade bait.

But on days like Saturday, with Hisashi Iwakuma looking like a co-ace and the team finding a way to beat an excellent pitcher in Lance McCullers, it’s easy to think that the Mariners still have a pulse.

The return of Felix Hernandez on Wednesday will be a huge boost, with Taijuan Walker hoped to follow shortly behind him.

“Felix is the ace,’’ Walker said before the game. “He pretty much holds the starting rotation together. He’s the stopper. Having him back is going to be huge. That alone is going to help the team and help the starting staff and the pitching staff.”

If the Mariner rotation can regain the stability that marked that early stretch of wins, then the bullpen won’t be as overtaxed as it was during their slide. The emergence of 22-year-old Edwin Diaz as a legitimate late-inning force is an exciting prospect for a potential second-half playoff chase.

“We have the pieces to go for a run,’’ Hernandez told me before the game. “If we put everything together, we can do it. We’re good. We’re really good. We just have to put everything together.”

But the Mariners don’t necessarily have the luxury of making a slow, steady erosion of their deficit. No team does. In today’s baseball, so much is predicated by the non-waiver trade deadline, necessitating general managers to do the soul-searching that determines if their hopes are legitimate or fool’s gold.

Of course, that doesn’t have to mean a full-bore fire sale, even if the prospects look dim. An astute GM will find ways to help the team in the future despite a seemingly hopeless situation.

It’s possible, in other words, to be both buyers and sellers – but some playoff-hungry Mariners fans are surely ready for Dipoto to go all-in on an aggressive pursuit of the postseason bid that has eluded the Mariners since 2001. The next two weeks will seal the wisdom of such a strategy, a reality that has not escaped notice in the clubhouse.

“I think it’s in the back of everyone’s mind,’’ said Cishek, who was part of a trade-deadline swap last year, going from Miami to St. Louis on July 24.

“But if you go out and play that way, you’re going to be a little bit tight. We have a loose group. We’ve been loose all year. But (it’s) in the back of our heads, yeah. We want to play well and be able to try to make a move. Because that’s why we play the game. We don’t play to lose. We play to win.”

The prospects for a Mariners victory were not particularly bright Saturday, with Nelson Cruz and Ketel Marte both out of the lineup because of injuries as they faced McCullers, who shut them down completely on July 4.

But Iwakuma was brilliant, and so was Diaz, who in his short big-league stint has been so dominant that Mariners manager Scott Servais had no hesitation to bring him into the eighth inning of a one-run, must-win game.

“He has earned my trust,’’ he said.

So is Diaz the new eighth-inning guy for the Mariners, supplanting Joaquin Benoit? Not quite yet, at least formally.

“For me, it doesn’t matter,’’ Servais said. “Because he’s a very young pitcher, we have to be careful how much we expose him. I want him to have something left in his tank when we get to September. He’s never pitched in September before. As a minor-league player, their season isover at Labor Day. Ours isn’t.

“We’ll use him, use Benoit, (Vidal) Nuno, mix and match down there. But he’s been electric. He’s been really good.”

To make September matter, the Mariners need to make late July their own. Servais said he’s just looking at the day-to-day challenges of the season, leaving those trade-deadline issues mostly to the front office.

“But I do know, I’ve been around the GM long enough, he’s very aggressive, but he also is clear in his thinking of what’s best for the organization, in the short and long term,’’ he said.

For the Mariners, the short term is vital. In fact, the long term may depend on it.