The finale to this four-game set between the Royals and Mariners at Safeco Field on Sunday will have a similar flavor to the one played between the two teams on July 19 in Kansas City. Seattle ace Felix Hernandez will oppose Kansas City rookie Will Smith, the same matchup that concluded the series at Kauffman Stadium.
The Royals are hoping the similar flavor doesn't mean the same dish. Hernandez was dominant in that last matchup, allowing just one run over eight innings, as the Mariners won, 6-1.
It was a performance that's become commonplace for the All-Star right-hander, who's won three straight starts and has gone at least 7 1/3 innings in his last four outings. Hernandez hasn't lost since June 12 against the Padres. In his last eight starts, he's 5-0 with a 1.49 ERA.
"He's always working to get better, so I just think any time he's out there, the longer he's out there, the better he's going to be," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. "You're talking about a period of six months [the course of the season]. He had a little adjustment phase early on, worked through that nicely, and I think I've said three times this year, 'That's the best I've ever seen him,' and that's true. It's just a lot of fun to watch.
"He's just never satisfied. I think that's the most important thing. He's always going to work to get better."
Hernandez is not the pitcher the Royals want to face right now, as they have struggled mightily to score runs, plating just four total in the series' first three games. They're also trying to avoid a four-game sweep -- going 1-6 against the Mariners overall this season. In nine career starts against Kansas City, Hernandez is 4-3 with a 2.69 ERA.
Smith was much better in his return to the big league rotation in that last outing against Seattle than he was in his Major League debut in May. He went 6 1/3 innings, allowing four runs and striking out five in taking the loss against Seattle, but followed up that performance with the best start of his young career on Tuesday against the Angels. Smith allowed just one run and two hits in a career-high seven innings for his second win of the season.
Royals: Giving it up early
In their last 18 games, early runs have devastated the Royals. Kansas City pitchers have allowed 45 of the total 104 runs scored by opponents in the first two innings. In their last four games, the Royals have allowed a total of 13 runs in the first and second innings. In those last 18 games, the Royals are 4-14.
With his 3-for-3 performance on Saturday, designated hitter Billy Butler has picked up at least two hits in six of his last eight games. In that span, he is batting .424 with two home runs, three doubles and seven RBIs.
Outfielder Alex Gordon went hitless in the first two games of the series with the Mariners. It was the first time he went hitless in back-to-back games since July 3-4 against the Blue Jays.
Mariners: Limiting opponents
Seattle pitchers have held opposing teams to two hits or fewer in a game five times this season, which led the Majors entering play on Saturday. That's the most since 2001, when the Mariners set a franchise record with seven.
Additionally, they've also held teams to one run or fewer 22 times this season. That ranked third in the American League entering Saturday, trailing American League West rivals Los Angeles and Oakland.
Closer Tom Wilhelmsen converted his 13th save of the season on Saturday, but not without some drama. He allowed an RBI triple to Lorenzo Cain to make it a one-run game, but retired Gordon to complete the save. The run was the first he's allowed in a save situation since picking up his first save against the Angels on June 4. It's just the second run he's allowed since May 25.
The Mariners have led in 27 of their 57 losses, which leads the AL.
Butler hasn't done much against Hernandez in his career, picking up just four hits in 18 at-bats. But, one of those hits was a home run, and he's the only player on the Royals' roster that has homered off Hernandez.
Mariners pitchers entered play Saturday with an AL-leading 2.83 ERA in the month of July. Only twice in team history has the pitching staff posted a lower ERA in a single month: May 2011 (2.82) and July 1991 (2.80).