Mariners fans at Safeco Field made a discovery Friday night. They still have hair on the backs of their necks. Been years since the follicles had reason to stand up.
But there they were, saluting an uproarious game that dripped drama, controversy and felt like Mariners games half a generation ago. It was something more than a warm summer night at the park. And hey, the Mariners won.
“That,” said a beaming Felix Hernandez, “was a big one.”
Hernandez dug himself out of a first-inning hole, the offense dug itself out of a week-long hole and closer Fernando Rodney dug himself out of a 3-0 hole against the formidable Yoenis Cespedes, and the Mariners climbed over the current kings of baseball, the Oakland A’s, 3-2.
The matchup between Hernandez and new A’s ace Jeff Samardzija not only lived up to expectations, the game kept going even after it was over.
Rodney took over in the ninth and had another harrowing inning. With a runner on second and one out, he fell behind 3-0 to pinch-hitter Cespedes, who has hit 14 of his 63 homers against Seattle. But after getting back to 3-2, Rodney coaxed Cespedes to fly out to right, advancing the runner as No. 8 hitter Nick Punto stepped to the plate.
When Rodney’s final pitch to Punto was above the strike zone, but nevertheless called strike three, Punto exploded, ripping off his batting helmet and confronting umpire James Hoye.
Before A’s manager Bob Melvin could reach his animated second baseman, Punto was ejected, followed quickly by Melvin, who maintained his fury for a good 30 seconds — “That was bullshit!” Melvin screamed — as the crowd of 32,971 roared and the Mariners hustled off the field before anything changed.
After the game, Melvin, who skippered the Mariners the last time they were good, shrugged in exasperation.
“Just look at it,” he said of the final pitch. “Tough way to end the game.”
A bit more colorful was the post-game description from Natalie Punto, who presumably was watching from home as her hubby completed an 0-for-4 night with his third strikeout, only it wasn’t a strikeout. Her tweet:
Ball was higher then my boobs and not my old boobs… I might of had the same reaction as nick just a dish towel instead of a helmet :/
— Natalie Punto (@MsShredderpunto) July 12, 2014
Well, then . . .a new metric for the strike zone has been established.
Away from the steamy A’s and their steamier wives, the Mariners were in a more celebratory mood, ending a slide of five losses in seven games by piling up three runs in a game for the first time in a week. They also reached a bit of a rare seasonal milestone — 50 wins before the All-Star break, a feat done only five times in club history and not since the Melvin team of 2003 (58).
Manager Lloyd McClendon made sure to bring up the achievement post-game, by way of saying that he congratulated GM Jack Zduriencik, The Custodian of the Perpetual Franchise Hot Seat.
Results lately have swung from excitement to despair and, apparently, back again. McClendon is gamely trying to walk a middle line to avoid the emotional whipsaws he dreads, especially for the weekend against the A’s.
“It was a good win,” he said, then seemed to catch himself. “Any win is a good win.”
As the season goes, it was undeniably big, so much so that McClendon pushed back Hernandez’s turn a day to go against the division leaders, who won seven of their previous eight to reach 58-34, matching the best mark after 92 games in club history.
The move probably cost the Mariners Thursday’s game against the Twins, but that didn’t matter after Hernandez overcame a three-hit, two-run first inning, including a second-batter home run from RF Stephen Vogt.
“Change-up,” Hernandez said. “Not good.”
After that, he was mostly nails, allowing the A’s six hits and two walks while striking out nine, delighting the largest King’s Court delegation in the yellow-clad event’s raucous history. It was the 11th consecutive outing in which Hernandez allowed two or fewer runs in at least seven innings, matching the longest such streak in the American League since Gaylord Perry in 1974.
The Mariners pulled one back in the second on Logan Morrison’s solo homer to right — he was the DH after Justin Smoak was recalled from Tacoma to take over first base — then tied the game in the third when Endy Chavez’s sacrifice fly brought home Brad Miller, who opened the inning with a double.
The decider came in the sixth when rookie James Jones had a one-out double, then came home on a soft, opposite-field double by Robinson Cano.
It was a rare hit with a runner in scoring position, so sadly lacking in the previous swoon.
“We had a lot of hits lately, but they didn’t find holes,” McClendon said. “It was about time one fell in.”
No one in a Seattle uniform was arguing about getting s little lucky too.