Perhaps if he finished the sixth inning, he might have had a few words for the amassed Blue Jays fans in their yearly invasion and overwhelming occupancy of T-Mobile Park when Canada’s team comes to Seattle.
Two years ago, in a must-win game at then Safeco Field, he tossed seven shutout innings against the Blue Jays and walked off the mound screaming and pointing: “This is my house! This is my house!”
But now in the final weeks of his tenure with the only organization he has ever known, and just happy to feel the electricity of the stadium, the lather of exertion and the adrenaline from competition after months away from it, Hernandez said nothing after he handed the ball to manager Scott Servais and wandered back to the dugout with two outs in the sixth.
What would he say? He knows it won’t be his house much longer. It’s too early for goodbye. And too late to say he’s back.
Besides a large portion of those invading opposing fans, aware of his circumstances, joined the small but vocal section of the King’s Court and other pockets of Mariners fans that made up the crowd 34,590 for a standing ovation. He wasn’t dominant. He wasn’t the vintage King Felix despite wearing the name on his back. But he was back pitching again after three months away and that mattered to him and many others who have endured the ups and downs, the magic and disappointment, the wins, the losses and the games he should’ve won since making his big-league debut in 2005.
In a season where the Mariners haven’t won much, and didn’t expect to, they didn’t win once again. And the story line of the 7-5 loss to the Blue Jays was familiar to many Mariners fans – Hernandez pitches well enough to be in line for a win, leaves with the lead, the Mariners find a way to lose the game.
“Outstanding performance,” manager Scott Servais said. “It just goes to show how talented Felix Hernandez really is. I know he’s had an unbelievable career and stretches here. Obviously, he’s dealt with a lot of injuries the last couple of years. But to sit on the sidelines for three months and go out and do that. I’m very impressed.”
Sentiment is a hollow reward compared to victory. But his biggest recompense was jogging to that mound and losing himself into the game that’s been everything to him.
“I was finally back on the mound and it was pretty good,” he said. “It was just good to be out there in front of the fans. It was a good crowd. There wasn’t many Seattle fans. It was pretty much Toronto. It’s why I was trying to step on it a little bit.”
Asked many questions postgame, he answered that he was “just happy to be back” on multiple occasions and it was the truth. In the final year of his contract and with an uncertain future ahead, he was making just his ninth start this season. He had missed the last 86 games with a lat strain and a slow recovery to get back to 100 percent.
“I really appreciate everything,” he said. “I’ve been here for a long time. Just to be out there with my teammates to compete against anyone was fun. It was a long time and I worked my butt off to try and get back and I did.”
A night after a strong showing in Friday’s victory, the Mariners inexperienced bullpen imploded in the seventh inning, giving up four runs, and then allowed another in the eighth, turning a 5-2 lead into a two-run deficit.
“I thought we were in great control there at the end, but it just got away from us,” Servais said.
The Mariners offense wasn’t quite as potent, failing to take advantage of 15 base runners in the game. They were 2 for 14 with runners in scoring position, left 10 runners on base and had Jake Fraley and Daniel Vogelbach, yes, Daniel Vogelbach, thrown out at home on infield ground balls.
“We had some chances in that game to spread the lead out and I don’t think we had too many hits with runners in scoring position tonight,” Servais said. “And in those type of games it will come back and bite you.”
That’s a recipe that has cost Hernandez so many wins on a resume that should be better.
Hernandez had given Seattle 5 2/3 innings, allowing two runs on three hits with three walks and four strikeouts. And it was forgotten in the failures of Matt Wisler and Reggie McClain in the decisive seventh inning.
“It’s too bad we didn’t get him a win tonight,” Servais said.
For a little reminder of Hernandez’s history with wasted starts, he has pitched six-plus innings and allowed two runs or fewer 214 times in his career. Of those 214, he has taken 59 no-decisions and 26 losses. Since he only went 5 2/3, this game can’t add to that regrettable and unbelievable total.
He needed just seven pitches to get through the first inning in order. Though his first pitch of the game, yielded a semi-scary result. Blue Jays rookie Bo Bichette ambushed the first-pitch sinker and hit a long fly ball that looked like it might carry over the wall. But it died near the warning track and dropped into center fielder Fraley’s glove just in front of the wall.
Hernandez then retired hyped rookies Cavan Biggio and Vlad Guerrero Jr. with a soft ground ball to first base and foul pop out of the infield.
The Mariners gave Hernandez a lead in the bottom of the first. Kyle Seager, who has been his teammate longer than any player on the roster dating to 2011, continued to produce at a torrid rate. He smoked a one-out single to right to score a pair of runs off Toronto opener Wilmer Font.
After Hernandez retired the Blue Jays in order in the second inning, they got to him in the third. He wasn’t without mistakes made in this outing. A curveball left over the plate was hammered by Teoscar Hernandez into the upper deck of left for a solo homer. Later with two outs, Bichette made sure his that his second ball in play off Hernandez wouldn’t be caught. A badly misplaced fastball was turned into a screaming line drive into the unbridled mass of inebriation known as The ‘Pen.
The inning wasn’t over. Hernandez walked Biggio and hit Guerrero Jr. with a wayward changeup. It looked like the midgame meltdown that has plagued him and frustrated Mariners fans for the last few seasons was unavoidable.
Instead, Hernandez summoned a changeup that had been useless the first six times he threw it. He used it to get ahead of Rowdy Tellez and get him to hit a weak ground ball to second to end the inning.
“I was fighting it the whole game,” Hernandez said of his changeup. “I was trying not to do too much and just get it over the plate to him. Big innings are always going to hurt you, but if you make good pitches you can get out of it.”
From there, Hernandez worked the next two innings scoreless, aided by Omar Narvaez throwing out a base runner to end the fourth and Austin Nola snaring a line drive off the bat of Biggio to end the fifth.
“It’s a testament to the competitor he is,” Servais said. “He really enjoys it and likes that environment.”
Narvaez put him in line for the win, launching his 19th homer of the season – a towering three-run blast to deep right-center off of right-hander Brock Stewart to make it 5-2.
As much as he wanted, Hernandez wouldn’t get out of the sixth. He retired the first two batters. But an 85-pitch limit meant that Randal Grichuk would be his last batter of the game, regardless of result. The two battled to a 3-2 count with Grichuk fouling off two curveballs before hitting a slider for a double. It ended Hernandez’s 88th pitch and his night was over.
Lefty Taylor Guilbeau entered and struck out Justin Smoak to end the inning.
When Wisler started off the seventh with a walk and a RBI double to the first two batters he faced, trouble loomed. He recorded an out but gave up a run-scoring single to Bichette. Reggie McClain was brought in to stop the bleeding. He walked the first batter he faced and then allowed the tying and go-ahead run to score on a ground ball out and a double from Tellez before walking another batter. Anthony Bass finally ended the misery, recording the final out of the inning. But he allowed a run of his own in the eighth that made it 7-5.