A few weeks ago, when the A’s were mapping out Seattle’s rotation, they saw that Felix Hernandez wasn’t scheduled to face them this weekend at Safeco Field.
“That completely shocked me,” Oakland manager Bob Melvin said before Friday’s game. “Because I don’t think I’ve ever managed a series with the A’s where he hasn’t been in it. So it doesn’t surprise me that he’s pitching.”
Lloyd McClendon, of course, took care of that by reconfiguring the Mariners’ rotation to make sure that Hernandez took the mound against Oakland. It was a debatable move, subjecting the Mariners to a bullpen start against the Twins a day earlier, and making them look just a tad desperate, despite McClendon’s protestations that he was not overselling this series.
Yet the result was a night of baseball that felt bigger than any in recent memory, and one that crackled with intensity from the first pitch to the last. Especially the last — a called third strike against Oakland’s Nick Punto on a full-count pitch with the tying run on third that sent the A’s into a rage.
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Punto and Melvin were tossed from the game by home-plate umpire James Hoye as Safeco rumbled with the kind of mounting, kinetic roar that hadn’t been heard since, well, the good old days. However you define that term, who would disagree they’ve been absent for too long?
Hernandez, as it turned out, was made for this atmosphere, turning in a vintage performance that showed yet again how much poorer the baseball world has been from the scarcity of showcase games by King Felix.
Safeco Field hadn’t experienced this kind of buzz in years, certainly not without a promotion or honored guest to provide the electricity.
The gravity wasn’t forced. This was a Mariners team somehow still residing in a playoff spot (though increasingly tenuous), facing arguably the best team in baseball this season. Check that — it’s really no argument. The A’s have scored the second-most runs in the majors this year and given up the fewest.
That’s dominance, and the risk for the Mariners on Friday was the possibility of a deflating loss that would have knocked them 10 games out of first — with their ace on the mound, no less.
But Hernandez, facing Oakland’s newly acquired stud, Jeff Samardzija (just to add more spice to the occasion), was absolutely brilliant. He survived an early moment of buzzkill — a homer by the second hitter of the game, Stephen Vogt, followed by another run scratched across by Oakland in the inning.
Considering the Mariners’ offensive woes, and Oakland’s pitching brilliance — one run or fewer allowed in six of its past eight games — it already felt dire, 10 minutes in. Particularly facing the imposing Samardzija, who with his long, lean frame and flowing hair brought to mind a right-handed version of the Big Unit.
Samardzija’s acquisition by the A’s last week, along with Jason Hamels, was a clear message that the A’s are going for broke this season. And why not, given the understated brilliance of this team constructed by Billy Beane, who has repeatedly seen his mad-scientist concoctions maddeningly stall in the playoffs throughout Oakland’s Moneyball run of regular-season excellence.
“We have good pitching, but to be able to add two guys like that, it speaks volumes when you’re sending a guy like Tom Millone down, who’s been pitching so great for us,’’ Melvin said. “Something that’s been very important to this team here the last couple of years, and increasingly, is the depth. It allows you, if you have some injuries, or some things pop up, to have quality guys.
“This just adds to the depth. On top of that, around the All-Star break, to be able to add guys like that, it gives the team a little bit of a boost, too. I think Billy’s well aware of that.”
So are the Mariners, for whom Oakland’s bold move added more pressure to answer with an impact acquisition of their own. And there’s really no mystery where their glaring need is. Going into Friday’s game, the Mariners had allowed just two fewer runs than Oakland. Their pitching has been just about as dominant as Oakland’s, in other words. But Seattle had scored 90 fewer runs, which explains why they are still eight games behind the A’s.
We’ll find out soon enough if Jack Zduriencik can boost the Mariners’ attack. This, however, was a night about a solitary baseball game with a large, involved crowd, moves to second guess, a Seattle comeback to savor, and a nail-biting finish.
A game that mattered.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146
On Twitter @StoneLarry