Hernandez strikes out eight in 62/3 innings and Nelson Cruz provides the deciding run in a 3-2 victory, the Mariners’ ninth in their last 10 games, over the Angels, who have lost 11 in a row.
ANAHEIM, Calif. — When Mike Trout hits a ball in the air to left-center field, there are two reactions for opposing teams: fear and hope.
Fear that it might not be caught and hope that it will somehow be caught. The Mariners experienced that full Trout spectrum — agony and elation — with one short vicious swing in the seventh inning of Monday night’s 3-2 win over the Angels.
In the end, their hope was fulfilled and it was the difference in the game.
With two outs and runners on first and second and Seattle clinging to a 3-2 lead, manager Scott Servais called on reliever Tom Wilhelmsen to face the perennial MVP candidate instead of starter Felix Hernandez, who had already served up a solo homer to Trout earlier in the game.
The process was a little bit scary for Seattle, but the result was ideal. A rare passed ball from Mike Zunino put the tying run on third and the go-ahead run on second. It looked like they might be jogging home when Trout launched a line drive to left-center on a 3-2 curveball from Wilhelmsen.
The sound off the bat and trajectory toward left field elicited an anticipatory roar from the Angels crowd.
The Mariners reaction?
“I was just holding my breath hoping it wouldn’t go out,” said Nelson Cruz, who watched from right field. “You never know with him.”
Servais stood on the top step of the dugout and agonized with each passing foot the white streak traveled.
“I knew he hit it into the deepest part of the park,” Servais said. “But when Mike Trout is at the plate and the ball comes off his bat like that in the air, it’s not a good feeling. Everybody in our dugout got real quiet.”
Wilhelmsen, who admitted that curveball might not have been the best pitch to throw, but also said it was the only pitch he could seem to get over, just hoped it would get caught.
“I thought it was well struck,” Wilhelmsen said. “Luckily, maybe he didn’t hit the weight room today.”
Left fielder Norichika Aoki had a read on the ball, retreated and made a backpedaling catch up against the wall to end the inning.
“I said, ‘No way,’ ” Aoki said through his interpreter. “The ball travels well here, and I thought it was going to float into the stands. I mean I thought I could catch it, but it was in the back of my head that, with Trout, it might float into the stands.”
It ended the inning and the Mariners had no more drama in the final two innings.
Wilhelmsen came back for an easy eighth inning and Edwin Diaz pitched a quick 1-2-3 ninth to secure his seventh save in seven opportunities.
The Mariners and Angels are two teams headed in very different directions. Despite a patchwork starting rotation and a propensity to win every game by one run, the Mariners have been one of the hottest teams in baseball, winning nine of their last 10 to improve to 63-54. Meanwhile, the cratering Angels are in the midst of a miserable 11-game losing streak — the longest in club history — in a forgettable season where they continue to fall further into August irrelevance.
Lost in the drama of the seventh was Hernandez picking up the 150th win of his career. He pitched 62/3 innings, giving up two runs on four hits with four walks and eight strikeouts.
“Only 150 more so I can get to 300,” he said.
Hernandez gave up a run early but seemed to be cruising through hitters. His teammates gave him a lead on back-to-back RBI singles from Adam Lind and Zunino in the fourth inning off Angels starter Ricky Nolasco. It was a lead the Mariners never relinquished, but needed one key decisive run from the bat of Cruz an inning later.
After seeing curveballs and sliders from Nolasco in his first two at-bats, Cruz got the hanger he was waiting for in the fifth inning. Nolasco left a 2-2 curveball up in the zone, and Cruz crushed it, sending a towering moonshot into left field for a solo homer and a 3-1 Seattle lead.
“I just got one I could handle,” he said.
It was Cruz’s 30th homer, giving him 30 or more homers for the third straight season and the fourth time in his career.
In their long running battle of homers vs. strikeouts, Hernandez had basically abstained from participating against Trout for his first two plate appearances, walking him without leaving much near the strike zone.
But in the midst of a string of six straight strikeouts, Hernandez decided to test his nemesis. It was a regrettable decision. Hernandez left a 1-1 curveball over the middle of the plate and Trout hit his 23rd homer.
“That’s why I tried to strike out Trout,” Hernandez said of the run of strikeouts. “I left that pitch right there. And he hit it out of the ballpark. That’s the reason why he’s my nightmare. He’s got my number and everything. You just have to tip your hat to him.”