It was a magical moment in a forlorn Mariners season lacking very many of them: Felix Hernandez, of all people, connecting off Johan Santana...
NEW YORK — It was a magical moment in a forlorn Mariners season lacking very many of them: Felix Hernandez, of all people, connecting off Johan Santana, of all people, for — it couldn’t really be, could it? — a grand slam.
A grand slam!
The way Hernandez was mowing Mets hitters down, anything seemed possible, even a historic salami/no-no combo.
“He had special stuff,” Mariners pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre said.
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At the very least, it could have been heralded as the night that King Felix assumed, or at least shared, the throne of pre-eminent pitching occupied by Santana, his Venezuelan countryman.
But by the time the game ended, even the Mariners’ 5-2 victory at Shea Stadium seemed empty.
All the building euphoria was knocked out of the Mariners when Hernandez suddenly was writhing in pain near home plate in the fifth inning, with what was eventually termed a sprained left ankle. Carlos Beltran, scoring from third on a wild pitch, slid into the leg of Hernandez, who was covering home.
To start at the end and work backward, it appears the Mariners averted disaster. In fact, the news after the game was upbeat, and Hernandez himself was in a good mood, vowing not to miss his next start.
“I’m going to pitch next time. For sure,” he said.
The Mariners weren’t willing to go quite that far, but manager Jim Riggleman said X-rays were negative, and termed the sprain “mild.”
“We hope we can get him back out there as soon as possible,” Riggleman said. “[Trainer] Rick Griffin is pretty encouraged. He may miss a couple of days off his next start, but we’re not thinking DL at all.”
Until the injury, it looked like another coming-out moment for Hernandez, in the city that likes to think of itself as the headquarters of the game.
He retired the first nine Mets hitters, a stretch interrupted by his stunning grand slam — made possible when a David Wright error prolonged the inning. On the first pitch he saw from Santana, a 93 mph fastball, Hernandez sent it opposite field, over the right-field wall, 390 feet away.
Told it was the first homer ever hit by a Mariners pitcher, Hernandez smiled and said, “That’s good.”
Told it was the first slam by an American League pitcher since Cleveland’s Steve Dunning in 1971 against Oakland (off former Seattle Pilot and Mariner Diego Segui, no less), he smiled again and said, “That’s good, too.”
When he reached the dugout, Felix was mobbed by his teammates, but the hero’s welcome included needles, too.
“They said I was lucky. [Adrian] Beltre told me I closed my eyes,” he said. “I said, ‘Nah, I was right on it.’ “
Ryan Rowland-Smith, who would eventually be credited with the victory on the judgment of the official scorer, sensed greatness brewing.
“I didn’t want to say anything to jinx it, but it looked like he was going to get a complete game,” Rowland-Smith said. “He was dialed in. We had a TV out there and could see him and every pitch was nasty. He was throwing a 90 mile per hour changeup.
“I thought, ‘He’s going to hit the grand slam and then get the no-hitter.’ “
Then Hernandez gave up a hit — a leadoff single to Jose Reyes in the fourth, but Rowland Smith said, “I thought he was going to get the complete game for sure.”
But with Beltran on third with two outs after a leadoff double, and Hernandez one strike away from getting out of the jam — and qualifying for the victory, he bounced a 1-2 pitch to Castro.
Hernandez raced in to cover home as catcher Jeff Clement scrambled for the ball. Clement lunged unsuccessfully to tag Beltran, who slid directly into Hernandez’s left leg, which seemed to crumple at an awkward angle.
Hernandez tried gamely to stay in the game, but buckled when he threw a practice pitch.
“He was in such pain, I thought there was no chance,” Riggleman said. “But when he got up and walked toward the mound, he wasn’t walking that bad. I thought he might be all right. But as soon as he landed [on the practice throw], I knew he wouldn’t be able to continue.
Asked whether he heard a yelp, Riggleman said, “I don’t know; that might have been Mel … I just knew he was in pain and I had to get him out of there.”
Even Hernandez, who seemed ready to fight to stay in the game, reluctantly agreed.
“You know I’m not going to come out if it’s not too bad,” he said. “But it was bad. I wanted to stay in the game. I threw one pitch, and it hurt bad. Now I’m fine. I’m going to be ready to throw my next outing.”
With Roy Corcoran’s arrival to replace Hernandez, his streak of 41 consecutive starts of five or more innings ended. In 4-2/3 innings, he gave up just two hits, didn’t walk any, and struck out two.
Stottlemyre said Hernandez’s pitch count was low — 51 — and the coach thought the starter would have “a terrific night.”
“He’s going to hit a grand-slam homer and go the whole way,” Stottlemyre said. “The next thing you know, boom, the play at home.”
Corcoran and Rowland-Smith combined to work 3-1/3 hitless and scoreless innings as the Mariners preserved the 5-1 lead. But Sean Green struggled in the ninth, giving up two hits and a walk.
The Mets had one run in and the tying run at the plate when Riggleman summoned 38-year-old Arthur Rhodes to face a familiar adversary, left-hander Carlos Delgado.
Delgado was 5 for 28 against Rhodes, who made it 5 for 29 by striking out Delgado. When Rhodes followed by fanning Damion Easley looking for the final out, he had recorded his first save since Aug. 29, 2006, while with the Phillies.
“Did it feel good to get a save? Nah. It felt good to get a win,” Rhodes said.
The Mariners have had precious few in 2008. This one came with a cost — but maybe not as high as it could have been.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com