SEATTLE -- The way Felix Hernandez had been pitching these days, the Angels figured runs would be at a premium when they faced him at Safeco Field on Saturday afternoon. But they waited him out, getting his pitch count up and staying close thanks to another solid start by Ervin Santana.
Then, in the eighth, they broke through.
The Angels scored four runs in that inning, using a hard grounder from Albert Pujols, a two-run single by Mark Trumbo and an RBI double by Howie Kendrick to turn a one-run deficit into a three-run lead, pushing them to a 5-2 victory and five straight wins for the first time since late May.
"This," Torii Hunter said, "is the one last push."
The Angels started the season awfully slow, were one of baseball's best teams for a 10-week stretch heading into the All-Star break, then fell off once again with a 14-22 record to begin the second half. But now they've won nine of their last 11 and are playing some of their best baseball as the season enters its stretch run -- and a critical matchup with the surprising Athletics awaits.
"Why not?" said Trumbo, whose team is 2 1/2 games back of the final playoff spot. "I feel great about where we're at. I feel like we're hitting our stride exactly when we need to."
The rotation surely is. And the latest example was Santana, who basically matched Hernandez pitch-for-pitch while giving up two runs in seven innings, moving his ERA to 3.40 over his last six outings, giving the staff six quality starts in the last 11 games and setting the stage for a late rally.
The Angels came into this game 2-50 when trailing after seven innings. Then they came back in the top of the eighth -- against one of the game's finest arms.
"Felix is one of the best pitchers, if not the best pitcher in the game," Hunter said. "He's a strikeout pitcher, and he's tough. If the Mariners get ahead while he's on the mound, it's going to be a battle, and we knew we had an uphill battle. We kind of shortened our swings and tried to really battle at the plate and we were able to come through with some big hits."
Hernandez rolled through the first seven frames against an Angels lineup that leads the Majors in runs per game since the All-Star break, giving up just one run, striking out seven and limiting the opposition to 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position.
But he checked into the eighth with 103 pitches against the top of the Angels' order and couldn't maintain the Mariners' one-run lead.
Mike Trout led off with a single, his second hit of the day. Hunter shot a base hit to right field, giving him 13 hits in his last four games. Pujols hit a hard grounder to the left side that went right through third baseman Kyle Seager, going as an error and tying the game. And two batters later, the slumping Trumbo hit a broken-bat single to left field to plate the winning runs.
Trumbo, still the team leader in homers, came to bat with first base open, one out and the infield in. Typically, that's a prime intentional-walk situation. Instead, the Mariners went right after him.
"No," Trumbo said. "I think the results lately speak for themselves."
Trumbo has been in a maddening slump over the last six-plus weeks, coming into this game with a .218 batting average since a July 17 move to the cleanup spot, then going 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in his first three plate appearances against Hernandez.
Coming through in a key spot may get Trumbo going again. And if he does, the Angels will seemingly have everyone clicking.
"There's nobody trying harder than Mark," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "He senses his importance to our club. He doesn't need to take the whole club on his shoulders, but there's no doubt that putting him in RBI situations, the way he can drive the ball, he's going to have an opportunity to be one of our difference-makers on the offensive side. Hopefully that hit is a sign of better things to come from Mark."
Hernandez came in with a Major League-leading 2.43 ERA and had given up only one run in his last three starts, a 25 2/3-inning stretch that included a perfect game. The 26-year-old right-hander had won nine straight decisions, posting a 1.40 ERA since his last loss on June 12 and coming up victorious in four 1-0 games in that stretch.
But the Angels, for whatever reason, had hit him well this season, now scoring 15 runs through 20 1/3 innings in their three encounters against the Mariners' ace.
"They've got a good lineup," Hernandez said. "They've got me pretty good the last three starts. But that doesn't matter. You've just got to go out there and make good pitches."
Santana has been doing that lately, better than at any point in what had mostly been a nightmarish season.
Against the Mariners, he scattered four hits, walked two, struck out five and retired the side in order in four of his seven innings. Santana has now given up a combined 18 earned runs in his last 44 2/3 innings, a seven-start stretch that has seen his ERA drop from 6.00 to 5.32.
The key is his release point, which has allowed him to get better bite on his slider and help keep hitters off his fastball.
"I'm doing the same thing I've been doing all year," Santana said. "Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't work. It worked today."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com Read his columns and his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.