It's not hard to put your finger on the big difference, which is that these Mariners are stringing together wins in ways that didn't happen a year ago. Seattle won its fifth straight game on Sunday, a 6-1 decision over the Padres to complete an Interleague series sweep at PETCO Park.
Just 46 games into the season, the Mariners now have two five-game win streaks and have shown the ability to get on a roll behind a starting rotation that recorded its ninth straight game of seven-plus innings with two or fewer runs.
The last Major League team to pull that trick was the 1988 Giants. And when you get that kind of starting pitching, good things follow. Only once in all of 2010 did Seattle ever win more than four in a row, but the Mariners' latest surge lifted them out of the American League West cellar and put them just a game and a half in back of front-running Texas.
A year ago the Mariners were 18-28 at this point, 7 1/2 games out of first and fading fast.
"It's way different," Hernandez said after tying his career high with 13 strikeouts in another strong eight-inning start. "It's a lot different than last year. We're playing better baseball and doing the little things. It's unbelievable the way we've played the last two weeks."
The Mariners have now won 14 of their past 23 games as they head to Minnesota for a three-game set.
Hernandez simply continued what his rotation counterparts have been doing the past nine days, mowing the Padres down for eight innings, allowing only six hits and a single run. He had no walks to mar his 13-strikeout performance, with David Pauley then coming in to slam the door in the ninth.
San Diego scored just one earned run in three games against the Mariners, totaling 13 hits in 27 innings while being outscored 13-2.
"It's been outstanding the way these guys have passed the torch to the next guy, to the next start, and just kept on going," said Mariners manager Eric Wedge.
Hernandez improved to 5-4 while lowering his ERA to 3.01, becoming just the fourth pitcher in Mariners history to record 13 or more strikeouts with no walks in a game. The last to do that was Randy Johnson in 1997.
"My changeup was pretty good today," said Hernandez. "All my stuff, I was throwing a lot of strikes. I was working in all my pitches."
Padres catcher Rob Johnson has seen that act before. Johnson caught Hernandez for much of the previous two seasons in Seattle before being traded to San Diego in the offseason.
Hernandez struck Johnson out twice in an 0-for-3 afternoon. After Johnson told Hernandez to give him a fastball to hit in his first at-bat, the Padres' catcher went back to the dugout staring at the mound and shaking his head.
"He told me to throw him a fastball," Hernandez said with a chuckle. "I said, 'That was a fastball' and he said, 'No, that was a sinker.' My bad."
Hernandez allowed just three hits over the first six innings and had the Padres off-balance throughout.
"I've caught him when he's that good," said Johnson. "When he's got his breaking ball, and he's throwing that thing for a strike -- plus the slider and curveball -- then his out pitch is a changeup and it's probably the best changeup in the big leagues, hands down.
"It's like a split-finger, straight down. It looks just like his two-seamer. If you take it, and it's a two-seamer, [it's] strike three looking. And if you swing, it dives out of the zone."
Seattle out-hit the Padres 15-6 in Sunday's finale, with catcher Miguel Olivo going 3-for-5 with three runs, and rookie left fielder Carlos Peguero and shortstop Brendan Ryan each chipping in two hits and two RBIs.
Peguero continued his excellent adventures since being called up from Tacoma 12 days ago, ripping a two-run double in the third inning. He also misplayed a fly ball in left in the fifth that resulted in a double for Padres first baseman Brad Hawpe, the only extra-base hit off Hernandez the entire day.
Peguero, who had a game-winning hit Thursday against the Angels and a two-run saving catch in Friday's victory over the Padres, was replaced in the outfield in the seventh inning as Wedge sent Gold Glover Franklin Gutierrez into center and shifted Michael Saunders to left.
That move paid off immediately. After Hernandez gave up a pair of singles in the seventh, Gutierrez tracked down a deep shot to the warning track by Orlando Hudson for the second out, then gunned Cameron Maybin out at third base after Chris Denorfia ended the shutout bid with a single to center.
Ryan, who raised his batting average to .227 with a 5-for-9 series, gave Seattle a 5-1 lead by doubling through a drawn-in infield in the seventh with runners on second and third, then hustling into second after the ball bounced off the bag at second into short left-center field.
Gutierrez then drove in his first run of the season with a base hit in the ninth.