NEW YORK – The plan can be perfect in its preparation. The philosophy of pitching backward and using your offspeed pitches as your primary can be believed.
But in the end, if the pitcher is unable to find the command to execute, then all of the pretense is rendered meaningless.
Felix Hernandez might or might not be fixed. In his mind, he never felt he was completely broken, which is another debate for another game.
Yes, he’s been better this season in comparison to his previous two. But true success will be measured by a consistency he’s still searching to find. And it’s apparent he hasn’t found it yet.
Even facing a watered-down version of the Yankees lineup, Hernandez wasn’t going to walk into the big ballpark in the Bronx and expect to have success with minimal command, regardless of his preparation and new philosophy.
Unable to execute at the level that had given the Mariners and their fans plenty of reason to hope early, Hernandez suffered through his worst outing of the season in a 7-3 drubbing Monday by the Yankees that really wasn’t that close.
The Yankees hit three homers off Hernandez over five innings. The erstwhile ace allowed seven runs (six earned) on eight hits with a walk and two strikeouts.
“They were real aggressive against his fastball,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “I think all three home runs were off the fastball. They weren’t in good spots in the strike zone. He really didn’t get into what he does or what he’s been doing where he uses his curveball to go back and forth.”
Yes, all three homers came off misplaced fastballs. Realistically the fastball, whether it’s his four-seam or sinking two-seamer, is his third or fourth best pitch.
“They were really aggressive,” Hernandez said. “And I was missing in the middle of the plate and they got some pitches to hit. Fastball location was not good. They just hunted the fastball and if I can’t locate my fastball, it’s going to get hurt.”
That they were hitting the fastball made Servais wonder why the curveball wasn’t featured more. But they won’t force it by calling pitches from the dugout. There is the understanding that a pitcher knows how he feels on the mound and what he’s able to throw with conviction. And yet …
“The toughest inning in a ballgame is the first inning for a starting pitcher,” Servais said. “You have to get a feel for what’s working. We were down 2-0 before we knew it. But it’s the discipline to stay with the plan going out there and doing it right out of the chute is important.”
Hernandez said he didn’t feel the curveball was good enough to fully implement the plan from the start.
“It’s one of those nights when you don’t have your best stuff.,” he said. “I was just missing with the breaking ball. I didn’t have good command with it.”
New York hitters seemed more than prepared for the curveball-first version of Hernandez. They were looking for fastballs early in counts and waiting for them. If it was a curveball, they’d simply wait for another pitch, even if was a strike. And because they recognized he wasn’t commanding the curveball with precision, it made his fastball that much more hittable. Preliminary Statcast data showed Hernandez threw 32 curveballs in 79 total pitches and got just one swing-and-miss with it. The Yankees swung at 11 of those breaking balls, putting seven in play and fouling off three others.
And the Yankees also seemed to pick out the times when he threw one of his handful of fastballs. In the first inning, Luke Voit turned on a first-pitch fastball on the inside half of the plate, sending a towering two-run homer to left field for a 2-0 lead.
Brett Gardner led off the second inning with a homer that only happens at Yankee Stadium. Gardner pulled a 1-2 sinker to right field. The line drive just carried over the wall as right fielder Mitch Haniger tracked it. In 29 other parks, it’s probably not a homer. But the Yankees had a 3-0 lead.
A miffed Hernandez then watched as Ryon Healy booted a routine ground ball at third. Perhaps it caused Hernandez to lose focus on the first pitch to rookie infielder Thairo Estrada because it seems like the only justification for gutting an 89 mph fastball that split the plate in half and was belt high. Estrada smashed a “real” two-run home run to right-center for the first of his career.
The Yankees tacked on another run in the inning when Mike Tauchman bounced a double over the wall in left field and D.J. LeMahieu followed with a crisp run-scoring single on a first-pitch curveball to make it 6-0.
The lead grew to 7-0 in the third when Gardner pulled a curveball into the right-field corner for a triple. He scored moments later on a single to left from Gio Urshela.
The Mariners finally scratched out some runs against veteran left-hander CC Sabathia in the fourth. Edwin Encarnacion worked a walk and Domingo Santana followed with a two-run homer to deep right center to make it 7-2. The two-run shot gave Santana six homers on the season and a team-high 32 RBI.
“I thought Domingo’s at-bats were better – a little more patient,” Servais said. “He hit that ball to right field, which is really his strength. He needs to stay with that and he also made a really nice catch in left field, too.”
The Mariners had opportunities to make it a game. Dee Gordon hit a solo homer in the fifth inning to cut the lead to 7-3. Seattle loaded the bases with two outs on a walk from Santana, but Sabathia got Jay Bruce to ground out weakly to first to end the inning.
“We put a lot of pressure on him in the fifth and he was able to get through it,” Servais said. “He wasn’t going to give in to Santana and he made some good pitches against Jay Bruce. He’s a veteran and knows how to navigate through a lineup and he was able to do it in the fifth.”
Seattle again threatened in the sixth against the Yankees bullpen. Healy and Omar Narvaez reached base to start the inning, but reliever Jonathan Holder came back to strike out Daniel Vogelbach for a big out in the inning. Gordon dumped a single into right for his third of the night to load the bases. But the Yankees called on right-hander Adam Ottavino to clean up the mess. He got Haniger to fly out to left and Tim Beckham to ground out to shortstop to end the inning.
“We had some chances,” Servais said. “It’s 7-3 and I think we had three at-bats with the bases loaded and didn’t get the big hit. You get a big knock there an it’s 7-5 or 7-6, and it’s a different ballgame.”
Seattle was 1 for 5 with runners in scoring position while stranding eight runners.
To Hernandez’s credit, he was able to give Seattle five total innings and not completely destroy the bullpen. Connor Sadzeck and Chasen Bradford combined to pitch the final three innings scoreless.
“The good thing was getting those last two innings with a zero on the board,” Hernandez said. “Against New York, it wasn’t going to be easy. It was a battle and I was just trying to save the bullpen for the rest of the trip.”