Mariners make strides, but fall short

SEATTLE -- Felix Hernandez has pitched 10 years in Seattle, winning a Cy Young (and maybe a second this year), establishing himself as the American League’s premier pitcher ... and has yet to pitch a single inning in the postseason.

But at least he finally had this Sunday. When Felix took the mound on the final day of the regular season, with the King’s Court packed full of yellow-shirted subjects and more than 40,000 fans throughout the stadium, he actually had a chance to pitch the Mariners into the playoffs. Which is far, far more than most everyone thought possible when the season began -– or when Seattle lost eight games in a row in April.

Seattle entered Sunday needing to beat the Angels and have Oakland lose to Texas in order to tie the Athletics and force a one-game playoff for the second wild card spot. King Felix accomplished the first part by pitching 5 1/3 dominant, scoreless innings to secure the American League ERA crown and lead the Mariners to a 4-1 victory. But the tumbling Athletics thwarted the second part by beating the Rangers 4-0.

The Mariners fans had been chanting "Let's go Rangers!'' so they were very disappointed when they saw the Oakland-Texas final go on the scoreboard. But the fans soon erupted in appreciative applause for the entire season. And for good reason. This was an exciting season for the Mariners, whom Seattle fans figured would not contend again until the Highway 99/waterfront tunnel project is finished (hint to non-Seattleites, that project is our version of the Big Dig.

“It was fun. It was fun all year round,’’ Felix said. “We would go down. Then we would get up. We had some struggles, but I’m proud of this team and proud of my teammates.’’

Seattle didn’t make the playoffs or even win 90 games, but the Mariners gave fans something to cheer and hope for until the final afternoon. And considering the past 13 years, that means a lot. As manager Lloyd McClendon told his team, “You’re no longer the prey. You’re the hunters.’’

“I think this was a tremendous learning experience for this ballclub, and we took a tremendous step forward,’’ McClendon said. “We’ll be better. We have a lot of work to do.

“I told you guys when I took the job this was a golden era for the Seattle Mariners and they haven’t let me down. And we’re only going to get better.’’

How does next season look? A lot like this year -- which is both good and bad.

The pitching staff, which led the league in ERA, looks solid. Felix will be back, as almost certainly will Hisashi Iwakuma (who has a team option for 2015), though comeback player of the year candidate Chris Young is a free agent. Rookie James Paxton pitched brilliantly after returning from injury. Taijuan Walker also pitched well when healthy.

And then there is the offense.

Signed to a $240 million contract, Robinson Cano was a terrific addition in the lineup, on the field and in the clubhouse while first-time All-Star Kyle Seager keeps getting better. But the rest of the lineup needs a significant upgrade. Seattle was shut out 19 times and finished last in OPS. General manager Jack Zduriencik, whose contract was extended this summer, has his work cut out for him to improve what has been a serious weakness for several seasons.

“It’s sad now that we have to go home,’’ Cano said. “You look back and say, we should have won this game or that game. But you can’t look back. You have a sour taste in your mouth, but you have to go home, work out and be ready for next season and think about what we need to get better for next year. We’re pretty close.’’

Seattle fans hope so, which is more than they usually feel at the end of most seasons.

As the Mariners took the field for the ninth inning Sunday, Earth Wind and Fire’s classic hit “September’’ played over the stadium loudspeakers while their fans danced, swayed and waved their rally towels. It was a wonderful moment, but what Seattle still awaits is an October song, like “We are the Champions.’’