It’s hard to make a claim that a starting pitcher with more than 2,500 major league innings can have a breakthrough moment in his 32nd year. But there was an episode in the sixth inning Sunday at Safeco when Felix Hernandez demonstrated some comfort with his elder professional self that the Mariners have been aching to see.
With two out and a runner on, facing Oakland’s best hitter, 1B Matt Olson, the one-time fireballer slung four consecutive curveballs to get three strikes to end the inning. Hernandez punctuated the feat with a scream and an exaggerated fist-pump.
“That was pretty good,” he said, beaming. “Four straight curveballs, I don’t think he was thinking about that.”
The craftiness generated a seventh strikeout, the most he’s had since nine against the Yankees in July 2017. It showed that Hernandez is finally coming around to accepting what he has become — an aging pitcher who can compensate readily for lost velocity with a curve, slider, changeup, guts and smarts.
“I’ve been making better pitches, getting ahead of hitters,” he said. “Breaking ball, changeup and sinker. Sometimes, I get quick outs, sometimes strikeouts. Good stuff.”
Calling his curve “my little toy,” he deployed it well enough to go a season-high 6.1 innings and 97 pitches, giving up five hits with no walks. He disclosed perhaps the key element in his emotional transition.
“I just gotta not be too nasty,” he said, referring to his mostly futile attempts to overpower hitters with fastball strikeouts. “Put the ball in play.”
Unfortunately for him and 25,882 popsicles posing as patrons on a raw afternoon, two of the hits came in the first inning and stood up for a 2-1 win by Oakland that blunted a four-game Seattle win streak.
After a single by Marcus Semien, Jed Lowrie sent a non-sinking fastball halfway up the lower-bowl grandstand in right field for all the runs the Athletics needed. Hernandez was out-pitched by the A’s big lefty, Sean Manaea, who stifled the recently robust Mariners lineup, allowing two hits.
One was a fifth-inning home run by the unlikely Taylor Motter, subbing in at first base with his .111 average.
Which basically made it Throwback Sunday: Hernandez pitches well, the offense gives him little support, Mariners lose.
As it was from about 2010 to 2015 for one of the best pitchers of his time.
But the fact that Hernandez could wake the echoes to give the Mariners a chance into the seventh inning was a substantive early-season moment. For a team whose biggest question for two seasons has been the ability of the starting rotation to approach major league averageness, the Mariners (8-5) received a day’s worth of answers. After the home run, Hernandez retired the next 13 batters.
“He threw the ball well,” manager Scott Servais said. “In the first couple innings, he was not real sharp. His stuff wasn’t very crisp. It got much better as he got rolling. Good outing by him. Only giving up two runs, we got to be in good shape.”
But the offense, despite the return of DH Nelson Cruz, back Saturday after missing two weeks with a sprained ankle, had nothing going against Manaea (2-2, 1.63 ERA), one of the few bright spots for the 6-10 A’s.
“Boy, I don’t know where we’d be without him at this point,” said manager Bob Melvin. He’s had a heck of an April for us.”
Still, the Mariners won two of three and thus created a solid warmup act for the marquee event of the April calendar — four home games against the defending world champion Houston Astros (a phrase that still is as foreign-sounding as if it were spoken in Mandarin).
Fans may recall a year ago the same juncture was inauspicious. Not only did the Astros win 14 of 19 in the season series, they won four of the six played in April.
Servais was notably terse in previewing the week.
“They won the World Series, but that was last year,” he said. “We’re a different club.”
They aren’t different enough to play even with the Astros. But they do have a different sort of starting pitcher in Hernandez, a guy who’s beginning to figure out that there’s life after 95 (mph).