ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Felix Hernandez didn’t get the win on Sunday at Tropicana Field, but he should have.
The Mariners’ ace struck out a career-high 15 batters in seven shutout innings, yet took a no-decision for his brilliant effort. It was another example of how misleading the win-loss stat can be for a starting pitcher.
But always a team-first guy, Seattle’s 5-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays made him just as happy.
The pitching duel between Hernandez and hard-throwing Chris Archer was as advertised. The Mariners finally broke a scoreless tie in the top of the ninth inning, scoring five runs off Rays closer Grant Balfour to pick up their seventh victory in nine games.
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“It was one for the purists,” M’s manager Lloyd McClendon said. “It was a great game, and the good guys came out on top.”
The Mariners (33-29) are four games above .500 for the first time since 2009.
The late rally was ignited by the unlikeliest of people — Brad Miller. The young shortstop came into the game carrying an anemic .169 batting average. But he looked like the Miller of last year, hammering a line drive down the right-field line just out of the reach of a leaping James Loney. He was thinking triple the whole way.
“That felt pretty good,” Miller said. “We were just scratching and clawing. I saw it get down in the corner. I didn’t break stride and went for it.”
With Miller on third, Willie Bloomquist coaxed a walk from Balfour to bring Endy Chavez to the plate.
The veteran outfielder, who was just called up a few weeks ago, punched at an 0-2 cut fastball, squibbing a soft liner just past Yunel Escobar at shortstop to put the Mariners up 1-0.
The swing was far from textbook. Chavez’s butt was going toward first base and his arms were flailing at the pitch on the outside of the plate.
“After watching that for about the last eight or nine years, it’s not luck any more,” McClendon said. “I think it’s talent. I’ve seen him do it time and time again.”
Chavez was taking grief from Hernandez and others in the clubhouse about the swing.
“I was just trying to put the ball in play,” Chavez said. “The guys were making fun of me, saying I’m the only guy in the world that can do that.”
So how does he do it?
“I think that’s talent,” he joked.
Seattle wasn’t done with one run. James Jones broke the game open, lacing a triple over the head of right fielder Kevin Kiermaier, who misread the hard liner, to score two runs. Seattle poured it on. Robinson Cano drew a walk and Kyle Seager doubled on a high chopper over Loney just inside the right-field line to score two more runs.
“We got a little lucky there,” McClendon said.
But there was nothing lucky about Hernandez’s performance. It was possibly his best outing other than his perfect game, which also came against the Rays.
“I think he was even better than the perfect-game stuff,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “He was that outstanding.”
Much like his perfect game, Hernandez was anything but sharp during his pregame warmups in the bullpen.
“It was bad,” he said. “Oh, my God, it was bad. Changeup was up — not even moving. Sinker was OK. But you know, in the game it was different.”
He was basically unhittable, striking out batter after batter, including nine of 12 hitters in one stretch. He allowed just four hits and walked one, and was in total control.
“Everything was working,” he said. “I was throwing a lot of strikes. My changeup was unbelievable. My slider was really good, too. I was getting ahead early.”
He registered at least one strikeout in every inning and struck out the side three times. It was the 21st time in Mariners history that a pitcher struck out 15 or more in a game. Randy Johnson accomplished the feat a ridiculous 17 times, Mark Langston twice and Mike Moore once. The 15 strikeouts tied a Tropicana Field record held by James Shields when he was with the Rays and Chris Sale of the White Sox.
“I didn’t know it was that many until they told me,” catcher Mike Zunino said. “It was a lot more than I thought, actually.”
The toughest inning was his last. Hernandez gave up a leadoff single to Ben Zobrist. He struck out David DeJesus to tie his career high of 13 strikeouts. Zobrist stole second and advanced to third on a wild pitch with Matt Joyce at the plate. Joyce struck out for the second out of the inning.
With two outs and Escobar at the plate and the non-hitting Jose Molina on deck, McClendon met with Hernandez to discuss strategy. Hernandez struck him out on five pitches, getting swinging strikes on three changeups.
With his ace at 100 laborious pitches after that inning, McClendon had seen enough.
“He was spent,” McClendon said. “He used everything he had in that seventh inning to get us out of that inning. When you have an emotional inning like that, you are usually going to have a letdown that next inning. And I just didn’t want that to happen. I’d seen enough.”
Like always, Hernandez wanted to stay in the game. But he didn’t put up much of a fight.
“He told me that was a stressful inning for you, that’s good enough,” Hernandez said. “And I said, ‘all right, you are the boss.’ ”
|Randy and the rest|
|Mariners pitchers with 15 or more strikeouts in a game:|
|Pitcher||No. of times||High|
|Randy Johnson, 1992-98||17||19 (twice)|
|Mark Langston, 1986-88||2||16|
|Mike Moore, 1988||1||16|
|Felix Hernandez, 2014||1||15|
|Felix having his best season|
|Mariners ace Felix Hernandez appears to be in his prime this year.|
|Category||2014||Best prior season||Career avg.|
|Win pct.||.889||.792 (2009)||.576|