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SEA@SD: Felix fans nine through six shutout frames

Last season, the A's won the American League West with a stirring, stunning second-half rally that culminated with 94 victories and a tight AL Division Series battle that didn't go their way in the end.

Guess what? They might be even stronger this year.

Meanwhile, their AL West rival, the Seattle Mariners, improved eight games to a record of 75-87 and posted a 39-36 record after the All-Star break despite finishing last in the AL in runs scored, and their offseason moves and promising spring leaves some to believe they'll improve a lot more in 2013.

The two clubs will meet for Opening Day festivities on Monday night at O.co Coliesum in Oakland. It'll be ace vs. ace, with perennial Cy Young Award contender (and 2010 winner) Felix Hernandez for Seattle against Oakland left-hander Brett Anderson. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05 p.m. PT.

And for both teams, it will be the time to start a 162-game odyssey of expectations.

For Oakland, it's about sustaining the success from a year ago while taking it to the next level. Oakland lost the first two games of the Division Series to eventual AL champion Detroit before winning the next two and ultimately falling in the deciding Game 5 when the Tigers threw just a bit too much Justin Verlander at them.

This year, some things have changed, but the outlook is the same. While starter Brandon McCarthy left for Arizona via free agency, a spot was opened for another of the A's touted young arms in Dan Straily. And in typical fashion for general manager Billy Beane, other players who left, including Brandon Inge, Stephen Drew, Chris Carter, Cliff Pennington and Jonny Gomes, were allowed to do so in strategic fashion.

Trades and signings operating within the A's budget provided the club with newcomers Hiroyuki Nakajima, Jed Lowrie, Chris Young, John Jaso and Nate Freiman.

The A's were not a great hitting team last year, but that should improve as emerging star sluggers Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick mature. The A's were, however, a great pitching team, from the young starters to the young bullpen. Most of the key performers are back and healthy.

In that way, the "unexpected" 94 wins of a year ago might become expected this season for reigning AL Manager of the Year Bob Melvin and his charges.

"If we can be consistent all year, I think something like last year isn't going to just be a fluke," starter Jarrod Parker said. "It's not going to be a one-time thing. To have a little more experience this year is going to be a big thing, too. We'll be able to be a little more comfortable with everything and not be so consumed with outside factors you face when you're new to it all."

The Mariners don't have that championship season to fall back on, but they're hungry to create new and lasting memories with a revamped roster.

Already, the fruits of general manager Jack Zduriencik and Co.'s offseason have paid off with a powerful Spring Training that saw a franchise-record number of Cactus League home runs, and new acquisitions Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales were right in the thick of it.

The thinking in Seattle is that the presence of those two monster bats in the middle of the lineup will help take pressure off talented young players such as Kyle Seager, Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, Michael Saunders and Justin Smoak, who have spent the last few seasons, as manager Eric Wedge likes to put it, "learning on the job."

Now the Mariners have experienced hitters to surround the youngsters and a pitching rotation bolstered by Hernandez, who accepted the largest pitching contract in baseball history (seven years, $175 million) to stay in Seattle because he believes in the city and the vision for the team moving forward.

"We've got veteran guys now, and everybody knows it's going to be different," Montero said. "Nobody has been talking about us, but we're fine with that. We're quiet, now we have a nice team. Everything is coming together. We've got power, we've got hitting, we've got pitching. It's going to be different."

How different? Well, we'll start finding out Monday.

Mariners: King Felix ready to roll
It was business as usual this spring for Hernandez, who put up a 2.65 ERA in four Cactus League starts. Hernandez, who turns 27 a week after Monday's outing, is ready to pick up where he left off last year, although he'd like to improve upon the 0-4 record and 6.62 ERA that he posted in the final month of 2012. Despite that, he finished the year with a 13-9 record, 3.06 ERA, 223 strikeouts in 232 innings, a fourth-place finish in the AL Cy Young voting, and, of course, his first career perfect game, which took place on Aug. 15 against Tampa Bay.

"I'm not going to disappoint anybody," Hernandez said the day he signed his extension. "I will do my best -- more than my best -- to get to the playoffs. We're going to make the playoffs. We've got a lot of talent, and we're going to be one of the toughest teams in this league."

• Wedge, a former big league catcher, said Montero will see the bulk of playing time behind the plate since the Mariners are stocked with designated-hitter types and Montero has improved his defense and game-calling abilities.

"I'm very pleased with the last couple weeks in particular," Wedge said. "I felt like he turned the corner about halfway through the camp. I think we've seen that."

• Morse hit nine home runs in Spring Training, which broke the Mariners' record of eight set by Mike Wilson in 2009.

A's: Anderson happy with No. 1 billing
Anderson will finally get the chance to be Oakland's ace. The lefty made only six regular-season starts in 2012 after coming back from Tommy John surgery and then suffering an oblique injury, but he made his presence felt, going 4-2 with a 2.57 ERA. In his lone postseason start, he beat the Tigers with six innings of two-hit, shutout ball, striking out six.

Anderson pitched to a 6.75 ERA in Cactus League play, but said he'll be ready when the Opening Day adrenaline hits.

"I'm sure it'll kind of hit me as we get closer and closer, but obviously it's an honor to be the guy to go out there and lead your team in that first game," Anderson said. "I'm excited for the crowd. Hopefully, it's the way it was in the playoffs last year, all rowdy. It'll be fun to be a part of."

• A's closer Grant Balfour had minor knee surgery on Feb. 14, but vowed he'd be ready when the season opened. After three scoreless, hitless spring innings, it appears the 35-year-old was correct all along.

"As long as I'm throwing the ninth inning when it counts, when the season starts, I'm happy," Balfour said.

• The buzz from the A's playoff run of 2012 hasn't worn off. The A's announced Wednesday afternoon that Opening Day is a sellout, with ticket sales reaching capacity days earlier than last year. In 2012, the team opened the season against the Mariners in Japan for two games on March 28-29 and then played their home opener on April 6, also against the Mariners. The first 32,000 fans at Monday's opener will receive a gold rally towel and a magnetic schedule.

Worth noting
• Mariners outfielder Saunders has had good luck against Anderson, going 5-for-16 (.313) with a double. Shortstop Brendan Ryan is 0-for-5 against Anderson.

• Cespedes liked what he saw from Hernandez last year. The outfielder went 4-for-12 (.333) with a double and an RBI against the Seattle ace.

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