The standing ovation Felix Hernandez received Sunday came in a manner other than for what he hoped. In as close to a playoff game as Hernandez has experienced, the 28-year-old rose to the occasion.
Over 5.1 scoreless innings, The King surrendered one hit and struck out seven. When Lloyd McClendon came for the ball after his 68th pitch, Hernandez hugged his manager, walked off the mound and saluted a Safeco Field crowd of 40,823 that stood and applauded in unison.
The Mariners held a 4-0 lead, and went on to win 4-1, but their hopes ended a few minutes earlier when the Athletics closed out the Rangers 4-0 in Arlington, TX. In part due to a five-game losing streak earlier in the week, the Mariners’ fate rested outside of their own clubhouse. Some of that blame rested on Hernandez’s shoulders.
A forgettable 33rd start of the season Tuesday, in which he yielded eight runs (four earned) on seven hits in 4.2 innings against the Blue Jays, played a significant part. A win that day and the Mariners’ destiny would have been in their control.
As he walked off the mound Sunday, the regret hit home.
“We’re all disappointed,” Hernandez said, after the season came to an end. “But you know what . . . we just got to work harder for next year.”
In a number of ways, Hernandez had his best season. His WHIP (0.92), opponent average (.200) and strikeouts (248) were all benchmarks of his 10-year career. With a little help from a scoring change Saturday, Hernandez also finished with the American League’s lowest ERA at 2.14, a mark that bests his 2010 Cy Young-winning ERA of 2.27. Despite the success, there was something left to be desired. As the old proverb says, to whom much is given, much is asked.
Hernandez is asked to set the bar for the Mariners. He has the most experience, the best stuff, the hardware and the highest salary. Yet, as consistent as he was through the better part of the season — including a run of 17 consecutive starts from May 18 to Aug. 16 when he pitched at least seven innings and allowed two or fewer runs — he wasn’t his best in key moments.
Given extra rest Aug. 29 against Washington, Hernandez was lit up for the most home runs (four) he allowed over his 10 seasons in an 8-3 loss. The Mariners dropped that home series 2-1. Two weeks later, in a key home start against the Athletics, a team it chased all season in the AL West standings, Hernandez surrendered a late lead to take a no-decision, one of 13 he racked up. Finally, there was Tuesday’s effort in Toronto.
Hernandez was unable to make it through five innings. He lost command, was hit hard and Seattle lost its fourth game in a row.
“The Toronto start . . . was pretty tough,” McClendon said. “He pitched extremely well for 4.1 (innings) and then all of a sudden the wheels fell off for some reason. But I was really happy he went out on this positive note.”
Not all of the results in his starts can be heaped on his shoulders. The offense scored 51 runs in the 19 starts he either lost or took a no-decision, an average of 2.68. As in the case of an Aug. 22 start in Fenway Park, many of those runs came after he exited.
Much of it also has to do with the changing dynamics of what managers ask from their starters. For the second consecutive year, Hernandez did not pitch a complete game. His season-high pitch total was 116 (done twice, versus the Angels May 28 and the Red Sox Aug. 22). However, he threw fewer than 100 pitches twice as often (14 times, not including Sunday) as he did 110-plus (seven times).
McClendon was adamant about limiting stress on his starters. With a franchise-best bullpen behind them, McClendon had even more reason to do so. In the end, Hernandez made 34 starts, won 15 and pitched 236 innings, third-highest total of his career, finishing as the front-runner for the AL Cy Young award.
That stress wasn’t lost on McClendon.
“It’s been a long year, it’s been a grind. He logged a lot of innings, a lot of strikeouts and a lot of pressure situations,” McClendon said. “(He pitched in) a lot of 1-0 games, 2-1, 3-2 — it was a long year in a lot of respects for him.”
After falling a game shy of the postseason, a stage of baseball he has yet to experience, Hernandez heads home to Venezuela with room for improvement and plenty to look forward to.
“We’re not satisfied,” Hernandez said. “We came close . . . I think I can get better. Every time I’m trying to get better, every year (I) try to work harder and we’ll see what happens next year.
When Hernandez and the Mariners finally do get the club’s first postseason berth since 2001, Hernandez will be ready.
“You (saw) my face when I was out there pitching today,” said Hernandez. “It was, ‘This is it, this is my game.'”