SEATTLE -- The Houston Astros still have time to atone for their September collapse last season, and they took a big step in the right direction Friday night. The 6-0 win over Seattle and ace pitcher Felix Hernandez moved the Astros (77-71) one game closer to the Mariners, Tigers and Yankees in the American League wild-card standings.
The barely-breathing Astros can take push themselves further into the crowded group of contenders with a victory Saturday, which would not only win the series but would also put Houston in a tie with Seattle among the teams chasing Baltimore and Toronto for the two wild-card spots.
The Astros will turn to Mike Fiers (10-7) in the second game of the three-game series with the Mariners on Saturday night. Fiers is coming off his shortest outing of the season, having allowed seven runs in just 2 1/3 innings of a 9-5 loss to the Cubs last Sunday.
"Big games like this," Fiers said after that performance, "I need to lock it in and play better than I did."
He'll get another shot Saturday night, although Fiers has a pretty tough act to follow. Friday starter Collin McHugh shut out the Mariners for seven innings, allowing just two hits, as Houston kept its chances of a second consecutive wild-card berth alive. McHugh has now beaten Seattle in all four of his starts against the Mariners this season.
"We just match up pretty well with them -- me, specifically," McHugh said after dropping his season ERA against Seattle to 1.36 this season. "Whether it's pitch mix or this venue, I've been able to have some success against them."
Seattle's Hernandez had quite the opposite kind of night. Having never pitched in a postseason game, Hernandez was in the rare position of taking the mound for a meaningful September game at Safeco Field and fell flat.
"He certainly was not on top of his game tonight," manager Scott Servais said after Friday's loss, which snapped an eight-game losing streak and dropped Seattle to three games behind co-wild-card leaders Toronto and Baltimore with just 15 games remaining.
The Mariners (78-69) are hoping for better results from Saturday starter James Paxton, a 27-year-old left-hander who can be dominant but can also be frustratingly inconsistent. Paxton turned in his best outing of the season on Aug. 7, when he looked to be on his way to a complete-game win over the Angels before taking a line drive off his left elbow one out into the ninth. He returned to the mound three weeks later but hasn't been nearly as dominant; he's still looking for his first win of September.
Neither team can afford a loss as the remaining games dwindle and the distance separating them from the Blue Jays and Orioles looks harder and harder to overcome. Houston did the early damage but might need a sweep just to stay in realistic contention, while Seattle can't afford to lose again Saturday.
"We've still got a lot of baseball left to play," Servais said. "We're still in a very competitive spot. But (Friday's performance) is not what you wanted to see."
For the Astros, the momentum of a Friday win could set the tone for this series and beyond.
"When you're going into a little bit of a playoff push like this, having the experience of last year, and knowing what it takes, I think that can be a little bit of an advantage for us," Houston's McHugh said.