Can the Mariners contend?

Felix Hernandez is used to scraping for crumbs to get a win.

But when Carlos Peguero blasted a three-run homer off James Shields to give the Mariners a 5-0 lead over the Rays in the second inning, the camera panned to Hernandez in the dugout, looking like had just gotten to lick the whole bowl of cookie dough. Five runs? Sweet!

When the Mariners padded their lead to 8-0, wrecking the expected pitching duel between two of the American League’s top starters so far this season, the King put his game on cruise control, seemingly content to blow his fastball past Tampa Bay’s hitters.

Not that there was anything wrong with that strategy: Hernandez went an easy seven innings, threw 97 pitches, allowed one run and struck out 11, improving his season marks to 6-4 with a 3.04 ERA. Truth be told, he has not been quite as dominating as he was last season, when he won the AL Cy Young Award. This was only his third start out of 13 in which he’s allowed one run or zero; in 2010, he allowed one run or fewer in 15 of his 34 starts.

But that’s being a little nitpicky. With his legion of King’s Court followers cheering on with K cards and fake crowns, and new "Larry Bernandez" T-shirts for all his teammates, Hernandez showed why he’s the leader of the surprising Mariners.

The Mariners are 12-3 in their past 15 games to climb two games over .500. Meanwhile, the Rangers rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat Cleveland for their eighth win in 11 games, leaving Seattle 1½ games behind first-place Texas.

The good news for baseball is that at least two teams in the AL West are finally doing something. After all, the last thing we want to see is a rerun of the 1994 AL West division race ... and I use the word "race" in the same way I would describe Bartolo Colon and CC Sabathia running wind sprints.

If you have forgotten -- and hopefully you have --- that was year the Rangers were 52-62 and leading the division when the strike hit. The only good thing about that strike is that baseball was saved from a sub-.500 division champion. We almost had another in 2005: with six games remaining the Padres were 77-79 but led the NL West by three games. They finished strong, however, winning five of those six to finish 82-80, the worst record for a division champ.

I’m sure it will take more than 82 wins to capture the AL West this year. The Rangers are playing better with the returns of Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz and have a plus-36 run differential. Plus, the imbalanced schedule that exists now -- but did not exist in 1994 -- means the Rangers still have 39 more games against their West rivals and 26 games against the AL Central (not to mention six interleague games against the Astros). All that is a reason why the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds Report projected the Rangers at 86 wins entering Thursday’s game.

BP also projected the Mariners at just 75 wins. With that in mind, what do they have to do keep pace with the Rangers? Here are six keys:

1. More production from left field.

Peguero hit two home runs on Thursday, but he’s not the answer. He hits it a long way when he connects, which isn’t often. He has a 23/3 strikeout/walk ratio and is a big, lumbering guy who plays left field like a cross between Greg Luzinski and Manny Ramirez. Mariners left fielders are hitting .183 with 18 walks and 75 strikeouts.

The solution: Dustin Ackley. By all accounts, the transition to second base just isn’t working. Ackley played outfield in college, so if he moved to left, it would take him just a few days to get reacclimated. The bat is ready now; he’ll be up soon.

2. Better defense.

Ben Jedlovec of Baseball Info Solutions reports that the Mariners’ defense has been among the worst in the majors so far, by BIS' analysis. Having Franklin Gutierrez in center will help; so will having somebody in left besides Milton Bradley or Peguero. But Ichiro Suzuki and Brendan Ryan, two players with solid defensive reputations, haven’t graded out well this year. With better defense, Seattle’s already strong pitching could end up looking even better.

3. Help in the bullpen.

Closer Brandon League has been solid, but he also had one terrible week with four losses. Setup men David Pauley and Jamey Wright have been vital, combining for a 5-2 record and just 10 runs allowed in 58 innings. Pauley, in particular, has been spectacular, with a 0.81 ERA and .164 average allowed. However, can they keep it up? Considering their track records, it seems unlikely, and neither is posting a big strikeout rate this year. With regression a possibility, it may be wise for the M’s to look at any one of several excellent San Diego relievers -- Heath Bell, Mike Adams, Luke Gregerson -- who could be hitting the trade market.

4. Bench Chone Figgins.

Or release him, just anything to keep him from sucking up plate appearances. His line -- .191 AVG/.232 OBP/.256 SLG -- wasn’t acceptable in the dead ball era, let alone in 2011. He’s been the fourth-least valuable position player in the majors according to FanGraphs. Unfortunately, the M’s don’t have a solid alternative, unless they want to move Adam Kennedy to third and install Ackley at second. That’s a possibility, but how about dealing for Kansas City’s Wilson Betemit? From the start of the 2010 season through Thursday's action, he has hit .300 with an .859 OPS.

5. Use Michael Pineda ... but be careful.

Buster Olney had a good blog entry, pointing out how the Mariners will be in a difficult position with their star rookie if they stay in the race. Pineda’s career high in innings in the minors is 139 1/3 IP, and he is already at 70 1/3 IP in 2011. He’s on pace for 32 starts and 206 innings, a huge jump over his previous high -- a jump many teams try to avoid these days. Of course, innings don’t always equate to pitch totals. Entering Thursday, Pineda was 50th in the majors in innings pitched, but just 66th in total pitches. He has been able to go deep into games in part because he’s been so efficient. Still, the Mariners will want to be cautious, especially since he missed much of 2009 with a sore elbow.

I would have Pineda skip a start before the All-Star break and then make him the fourth starter coming out of the break (they have a four-game series against Texas, so you’d want him starting one of those games). That would give him potentially 12-14 days between starts, a nice little rest that would be essentially skipping two turns in the rotation.

6. If you make a trade ... don’t wait until July 31.

That may be too late. Check out Seattle’s schedule coming out of the break: Texas, at Toronto, at Boston, at the Yankees, Tampa Bay. (Not to mention this slate in August: Oakland, at the Angels, at Texas, Boston, Toronto, at Tampa Bay, at Cleveland, White Sox, Angels.)

In the end, I project Seattle at 78 or 79 wins. But with a little luck, good fortune and more royal performances from the King, you never know.