OAKLAND, Calif. – Felix Hernandez was, well, Felix Hernandez again and when he’s like that the Mariners don’t lose very often, particularly to the Oakland Athletics.
In what could also be a possible pitching preview of the American League wild-card game if the Mariners were to secure a playoff spot, Hernandez outdueled Oakland’s ace Jon Lester in a showdown between two of baseball’s top pitchers
Hernandez tossed eight innings, allowing just one run on three hits and the Mariners got just enough offense against Lester — back-to-back solo homers from Kyle Seager and Corey Hart — to pull out a 2-1 win. As a result, the Mariners took two of three from the wild-card leading A’s.
“I felt good today,” Hernandez said. “I was pounding the strike zone, and that was the difference.”
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Hernandez improved to 14-5 this season and is 6-0 with a 1.98 ERA in his last 11 starts at O.co Coliseum, dating to 2011. In his career, he’s 19-7 with a 2.35 ERA in 35 starts against the A’s.
After three less-than-stellar starts in a season where he has been otherwise dominant, much was made of Hernandez’s tendency to tire in the final month of the season and manager Lloyd McClendon’s handling of him and the entire staff.
But in a possible playoff preview, Hernandez delivered a playoff-level performance.
“I knew going in against Lester it would be tough,” Hernandez said. “It was special. It was a big game.”
The game wasn’t the only thing that was special.
“He was special today,” McClendon said.
After a brief pause, McClendon’s face turned to a look of bemusement.
“And I might add, he was rested,” the manager said, referring to the debate of his shifting of the starting rotation to steal extra rest days for his starting pitchers.
McClendon has been steadfast in his belief that the adjustments to get Hernandez, Chris Young, Roenis Elias and even Hisashi Iwakuma some rest are best for the team in the playoff run. The immediate results haven’t been positive. But he isn’t going for only the immediate.
“It’s a grind for all pitchers this time of year. I know we were doing the right thing getting him the extra days and the other guys extra days,” McClendon said. “I think today speaks volumes for that.”
Debate aside, Hernandez did look stronger against the A’s than he had in recent weeks.
“He had tremendous command and was down in the zone,” McClendon said. “He was 94 (mph) when he wanted to be 94. He elevated when he wanted to elevate. It was vintage Felix.”
Hernandez’s lone mistake came in the fourth inning to Adam Dunn. He left a 3-2 fastball on the inside half of the plate. Dunn turned on it and lofted a towering solo homer to right field. It was his second homer in three games since joining the A’s.
“I was trying to go in and I don’t think it was in enough,” Hernandez said. “He’s not going to miss that.”
For a while, that one run looked like it might be the undoing of Hernandez’s bounce-back start. The Mariners managed just four hits against Lester for the first six innings.
But Seattle finally answered with the back-to-back solo home runs in the seventh inning off Lester.
Kyle Seager worked a 3-1 count and then sat on a 90-mph fastball up and over the middle of the plate, crushing it to the right field stands for his 22nd homer of the season.
“That one felt good,” Seager said. “He’s such a tough at-bat. He’s obviously one of the best pitchers going. In that kind of situation, we hadn’t had whole lot of opportunities. So you get in a hitter’s count and you just try to be aggressive.”
The 22 homers tied a career high and Seager also had two other hits in the game, including a double, which gives him a team-high 53 extra-base hits this season.
Two pitches later, Lester made another minor mistake, leaving a fastball over the middle of the plate to Hart. The veteran DH yanked it into the left-field stands to make it 2-1.
And that’s all Hernandez would need. He worked back-to-back 1-2-3 innings, running his pitch count up to 102.
McClendon didn’t hesitate to pull Hernandez and turn the ninth inning over to Fernando Rodney, despite an adventurous two-run save on Tuesday night where he threw 19 pitches.
Rodney delivered an unusually uneventful ninth inning, retiring Josh Reddick, Josh Donaldson and Dunn in order for his 41st save
“I felt the same,” Rodney said. “I know I threw a lot of pitches, but today when I went to play catch, I felt strong. Today I was a little more relaxed and a little more comfortable.”