Photo: Brandon Wade (AP)

Felix Hernandez, once and not too long ago among the AL’s most feared and fearsome fireballers, is near the end of the line. It’s been a steady decline too, not a cliff, which makes it feel less like an aberration and more the irreversible march of time. His injury-plagued 2017 was his worst statistical season since his age-20 years, and this season has been far, far worse than that; his ERA now stands at a once-inconceivable 5.73. And Tuesday’s start was the worst of all.

Hernandez allowed 11 runs (seven earned) in six innings in Seattle’s 11-4 loss to Texas. It was the first time he had gone more than five innings since June. He is 0-4 in his last five starts, and has allowed 22 earned runs in 23.2 IP over that span. There is no easy answer—he does not appear to be playing hurt, and he’s already made the transition from 100-mph-fastball guy to a craftier one who uses his change-up as his out pitch. “Yeah, I’m frustrated. What can I say? What can I say?” Hernandez asked.

It might have been Hernandez’s last start this season. Both Seattle papers are calling for Hernandez to be removed from the Mariners’ rotation, an unthinkable notion given that it’s not as if Seattle’s has an obviously better option waiting in the wings, and that this is Felix Hernandez we are talking about: a beloved lifelong Mariner who has only Randy Johnson as competition for the franchise’s best pitcher. But it appears it’s actually going to happen, since manager Scott Servais gave the kind of non-committal answer a manager tends to give right before he pulls a starter from the rotation.

“We’ll see,” Servais said. “You have to take a look at where we’re at going forward here. The next time that spot [in the rotation] comes around, we’ll be over in Houston. They’ve also got a good club.

“We’ve got to give ourselves a chance every time out there to win the ballgame. It’s tough to win.”

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The Mariners own the longest playoff drought in the big four American sports, 16 seasons and counting. This is Hernandez’s 14th season with the club, and it’s a sad but not uncommon irony that he has fallen off just as Seattle finally becomes relevant again, and that he gave his best years to some awful clubs. And what years they were: the most wins and strikeouts in franchise history, the most wins by a Venezuelan-born pitcher, six All-Star Games, a Cy Young award, a perfect game in 2012. 

Hernandez made baseball in Seattle matter when it wouldn’t have otherwise. No matter how futile the rest of the team was, every fifth game would look like this:

Photo: John Froschauer (AP)

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These days, Seattle has a better chance to win on the days Hernandez doesn’t take the mound, which is a very weird thing to say. But it’s true, and the Mariners are still close enough in the race for those starts to matter: Even after losing 11-7 on Wednesday, Seattle is three games back of Oakland for the second wild card spot.

Their first-half run might’ve been a relative fluke—they’ve got a 28-14 record in one-run games, and have actually been outscored by opponents this season—but the July collapse has been something to behold. From FanGraphs, here’s Seattle’s wild card odds over the course of this year:

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Hernandez, 32, has never started a playoff game in his career, despite deserving better teams than the Mariners could surround him with for a full decade. He is under contract through next season, so even if the Mariners don’t turn things around this summer, he’s probably got one more shot. (Seattle firing 10 scouts yesterday probably doesn’t help their chances.) But the cruel fact of the moment is that right now, the Mariners would have a better chance to make the playoffs with a replacement-level starter than with the former King Felix. Getting old sucks.