The Mariners are still very much in the playoff hunt as the All-Star break nears, but one huge series against the American League-leading Oakland Athletics remains.
It's perhaps the biggest early-July home series for the Mariners (49-43) in over a decade, as they can make up a lot of ground not just on the Athletics (58-34) but also the Angels (54-37) with a strong showing.
Here's a look at the prevailing storylines entering the series between the M's and A's.
The main event: King Felix vs. Shark
The series will start with a bang Friday night with one of the best pitchers' duels the American League can offer. Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, the front-runner to start the All-Star Game for the A.L. thanks to his 2.11 ERA, 10-2 record and 145 strikeouts in 136 1/3 innings, had his start moved back a day so that he could face the A's. As always he'll have a raucous King's Court backing him at Safeco Field, and they'll have quite the foil in new A's hurler Jeff Samardzija, who was acquired along with fellow starter Jason Hammel from the Cubs last week. The addition of the man they call Shark was a huge coup for Oakland, which already had a strong rotation before bringing the hard-throwing righty and his 2.74 ERA on board.
Just because Friday's game has a great pitching matchup doesn't mean the pitching will fall off a cliff for the rest of the series. Saturday will feature 2012 Cy Young finalist Hisashi Iwakuma (7-4, 3.07 ERA) against Jesse Chavez (7-5, 3.06 ERA), a converted reliever who is just another case of Oakland finding a diamond in the rough. Seattle will turn to their own surprisingly good starter Chris Young on Sunday, who will take his 8-5 record and 3.08 ERA against perhaps the Athletics' best pitcher this season, Sonny Gray (9-3, 2.97 ERA).
Oakland's run-scoring machine
The Mariners have their three best starters and the best bullpen in the American League ready to go against the Athletics, and they'll all need to be on point against a lineup that is stocked with four All-Stars. The power-hitting quartet of first baseman Brandon Moss, third baseman Josh Donaldson, left fielder Yoenis Cespedes and catcher Derek Norris will be in uniform next week in Minnesota, and they won't afford Mariners pitchers any moments of comfort. Donaldson has 20 homers and 65 RBIs, Moss is right behind with 19 and 63, and Cespedes is plenty productive with 14 and 56. Meanwhile, Norris has a huge .904 OPS in 67 games, and as if that isn't fearsome enough they all hit behind leadoff man and on-base machine Coco Crisp (.387 OBP). There's a reason they're the runaway leaders in run differential at +142.
Can the Mariners offense rebound?
Will the Mariners continue to struggle to score, as they did in their previous two series against the Twins and White Sox, or will they look more like the team that battered the Astros and Red Sox in the past few weeks? They're just 2-for-33 with runners in scoring position over their last three games, and Kyle Seager, Logan Morrison and Corey Hart have all scuffled recently – something that just can't happen against Oakland. Before homering Thursday, All-Star Seager had only four hits in 25 at-bats and no RBIs since July 2. Morrison was on fire in mid-June but has just one hit in his last 21 trips to the plate. As for Hart, he's 4-for-21 with just one RBI since returning from injury on July 4, and he was especially brutal in Thursday's loss, coming up empty twice with the bases loaded.
An even season series
Even though Oakland is coming off the heels of a game-changing blockbuster trade and has established itself as the class of the A.L. by owning the best record and run differential, the Mariners have not laid down for the A's this season. As a matter of fact the teams have split the season series 5-5, and the Mariners have actually outscored Oakland 33-31. Seattle may not be entering the weekend with much momentum after losing three of four to Minnesota, but their season history vs. the Athletics should give them a little advantage.