Felix Hernandez had thrown 97 pitches through eight innings, and he felt strong after a string of low-stress innings late in Tuesday’s game against the Braves.
It seemed entirely plausible that Hernandez would trot out to the mound for the ninth inning and put the final touches on what turned out to be a 4-2 Mariners win.
But Hernandez never got the chance. Manager Lloyd McClendon shut him down for the night and brought on closer Fernandez Rodney for his 31st save instead. Hernandez turned in another gem: eight innings, one run, four hits and eight strikeouts. He tied Gaylord Perry for the major-league record with his 15th straight start of at least seven innings and two earned runs or fewer.
But McClendon has his eyes on September and the playoffs.
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“It was my decision, and I’ll continue to do that,” McClendon said. “I’ll continue to protect my pitchers. I’m trying to play meaningful games in September, not have a pitcher throw a complete game in the first of August.
“My objective is to try to get this team as far as I can. Hopefully that’s the playoffs. We have our eyes set on it. I don’t know if we can get there or not, but I want Felix healthy, strong and moving forward in September.”
That hasn’t always been the case for Hernandez the last two seasons. In his final nine starts last season, he went 1-6 with a 5.33 earned-run average while dealing with back issues. The year before, he posted a 6.62 ERA in six September starts.
“I told you guys the other day that it’s my job to make sure that I understand my personnel,” McClendon said. “What they can or can’t do.”
Hernandez used to fight to stay in games earlier in his career, but he didn’t express those views after Tuesday’s win.
“If he says I’m done,” Hernandez said of McClendon, “I’m done.”
Hernandez found himself in a rather unfamiliar situation against the Braves: Pitching with a handful of runs backing him. The Mariners hadn’t scored more than three runs in his last six starts, but they broke that streak Tuesday.
They just needed some help from the Braves to get there.
The fourth inning saw the Mariners score all four of their runs, and it started with Kyle Seager getting hit by a pitch. From there, Chris Denorfia and Logan Morrison had back-to-back singles to score one run.
After a Mike Zunino strikeout, Chris Taylor hit a high fly ball to shallow right field. It looked like Braves right fielder Jason Heyward was going to come in and make the routine catch, but second baseman Tommy La Stella dropped the over-the-shoulder catch. The Mariners scored two runs on the play, and they added one more run in the four-run fourth inning on an Austin Jackson single.
“We were due for one of those,” McClendon said.
That proved more than enough for Hernandez, who wobbled, just a little, early before settling down.
Hernandez gave up a leadoff double to Justin Upton in the second inning and then retired the next two batters he faced. But he allowed Upton to score when he gave up a single to Chris Johnson.
Left fielder Dustin Ackley had a chance to throw out Upton at the plate, but he dropped the ball when he was puling it out of his glove. Hernandez also gave up two base runners in the third inning.
And then he shut the Braves down almost entirely.
He retired 11 straight batters at one point. He gave up a single in the seventh inning that snapped that streak, then retired the next five batters he faced. He went eight innings for the fourth time in his last seven starts.
“It’s fun when you pitch with a four-run lead,” he said.
Hernandez already owned the major-league record for consecutive starts with at least seven innings and two runs or fewer, but Perry held the distinction for consecutive starts with at least seven innings and two earned runs or fewer. Perry set the record with Cleveland in 1974.
During his 15-start streak, Hernandez has 126 strikeouts compared to just 20 walks in 114 innings.
“If he gets 22 in a row,” McClendon deadpanned, “then I’ll be impressed.”