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Mariners meet Nationals as wild-card push continues

Robbie Ray won the American League Cy Young Award last season and then cashed in on a free-agent contract to join the Seattle Mariners, a team with a 20-season postseason drought.

The left-hander won’t repeat as the winner of baseball’s top pitching honor, but he is aiming to continue his recent run of strong performances when the Mariners open a two-game series against the visiting Washington Nationals on Tuesday night.

The Mariners are one of six teams in the hunt for the AL’s three wild-card spots with 40 games to go, and Ray figures to loom large during the playoff push.

Ray excelled for the Toronto Blue Jays last season and then signed a five-year, $115 million deal with Seattle. But after 12 starts, Ray found himself saddled with a 4.97 ERA. But after a sudden turnaround, he compiled a sparkling 0.91 ERA over his next six starts, allowing four runs and 18 hits over 39 2/3 innings.

Ray (9-8, 3.87 ERA) said his arm was fine all along. It was his head that was holding him back.

“I think it’s just better focus from the start of the game,” Ray told reporters. “It’s all mental, making the minimal adjustments to understand that in situations where things started going a little haywire, it’s just knowing when to take a step back and know that you’re just one inch away from getting out of an inning.”

Ray, 30, has won five of his last seven decisions. He defeated the Los Angeles Angels last Tuesday when he struck out 10 in six innings and gave up two runs, six hits and two walks.

Ray will be making his first career start against the Nationals, the team that drafted him in the 12th round in 2010. While a minor leaguer, Ray was traded to the Detroit Tigers in December of 2013.

The Nationals own the worst record in the major leagues but Seattle just lost back-to-back games to the Oakland Athletics, the team with the second worst mark.

Washington has collapsed since winning the 2019 World Series, and the recent trade of Juan Soto and Josh Bell to the San Diego Padres signaled that a full-on rebuilding project is underway.

But while youth is the word in D.C., veteran designated Nelson Cruz is still making noise.

The 42-year-old Cruz hit a monstrous 440-foot blast into the third deck of the Western Metal Supply Co. building at San Diego on Sunday during a 2-1 loss to the Padres.

“That was a bomb,” Washington manager Dave Martinez said. “I thought it was going to go on top of the roof, I really did. He smoked it. I’ve seen him do that a lot, but it was a bomb.”

The homer was the 459th of Cruz’s career. Cruz is a seven-time All-Star and three of those trips came during his four seasons with the Mariners (2015-18). He hit 163 long balls during his Seattle tenure.

“He’s just a professional baseball player,” Martinez said. “He loves to play the game, he understands the game and he keeps himself in great shape. I can’t say enough about Nelson. He’s been unbelievable.”

The Nationals will activate right-hander Erick Fedde (5-7, 4.95) to start Tuesday. The 29-year-old has been on the injured list with right shoulder inflammation.

He last pitched for Washington on July 24 when he gave up three runs and seven hits over 4 2/3 innings in a no-decision against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Fedde lost his lone career start against the Mariners on July 13 when he allowed two runs and six hits over 5 1/3 innings. He allowed a homer to Jesse Winker, who is 3-for-8 with two homers off Fedde.

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