Jacob Nix silences Mariners until giving up homer in ninth and Felix Hernandez pitches seven strong innings but M's fall further behind Oakland in loss to Padres.
SAN DIEGO — It’s a story that’s been written many times in the 14-year career of Felix Hernandez — he delivers a strong outing, his teammates provide minimal run support and the Mariners lose.
The places, the faces and details have changed through the years, but the consistency of its occurrence allowed it to develop into a long-running meme in Seattle that illustrated a franchise flushing away the prime of a generational pitcher.
But this year has been different than so many of the past. Hernandez has rarely produced good outings to even be wasted, instead often leaving the Mariners minimal chances to win games upon his exit. Even worse, the Mariners actually find themselves playing meaningful games in the final weeks of the season with a playoff spot still technically within their reach.
So failing to capitalize on Hernandez’s best outing since mid-June by producing a tepid offensive effort against a nondescript rookie right-handed starter in a 2-1 loss to an awful-Padres team made it that much more ruinous and unforgivable.
And with the A’s rallying for a win in Houston earlier on Tuesday night, the Mariners (74-58) dropped to 5 1/2 games back for the second wild card spot with 30 games left to play in the season.
Hernandez pitched seven innings, allowing two runs on four hits with two walks and nine strikeouts. He hadn’t pitched seven complete innings since June 14 in a 2-1 loss to the Red Sox. It was just the third time he’d gone that far in a game this season.
He let out a huge sigh postgame before turning to answer questions about an outing that should have been celebrated, not lamented.
“Frustration about the loss, for sure,” he said. “I haven’t had a win since June 30.”
It was an outing good enough for a win and certainly a team win. And yet, it was the 19th time in Hernandez’s career where he pitched seven or more innings, allowing two runs or fewer and took the loss. It was the 47th time the Mariners lost a game under those circumstances.
“I thought Felix threw the ball really well,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He controlled the strike zone pretty well. I thought the curveball was pretty effective tonight. He did his job on the mound. You get seven innings and two runs out of Felix and you feel really good about your chances. We just didn’t get it done offensively.”
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Indeed, the Mariners were on the verge of receiving a “Maddux” from Padres starter Jacob Nix before Nelson Cruz smashed his 32nd homer of the season — a solo blast to deep center.
A “Maddux” in baseball circles is a reference to Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, who started in games in the twilight of his career at Petco Park. To get a Maddux, a pitcher must throw a shutout in under 100 pitches. Maddux accomplished the feat 13 times in his career. In this modern era of beefed up bullpens and stuff-over-command pitchers, it seems impossible. But when Nix rolled into the ninth inning having thrown just 73 pitches in eight shutout innings, it seemed doable. The 22-year-old rookie didn’t have a strikeout or walk, but had allowed seven hits going into the ninth. He got Jean Segura to pop out for the first out of the inning. Cruz hit the homer on Nix’s 79th pitch of the game. San Diego manager Andy Green pulled Nix after the homer and went to closer Kirby Yates, who got the final two outs for the save.
“We had some pretty decent swings on his fastball,” Servais said. “We had a lot of soft outs in the air. And they made a couple of good plays in the field, so give them credit there. But it’s one thing if you were chasing a lot of pitches out of the strike zone. We were putting a lot of balls in play and putting good swings on him. But it was his night tonight. He got it done.”
Indeed, Nix wasn’t overly dominant as evidenced by the eight hits allowed and no strikeouts. But the Mariners aren’t afraid to swing early in counts either, which helped him. But there was one instances where he was aided by his defense or two where he benefited from inexperience and inability of Hernandez to execute in the batter’s box to keep the Mariners scoreless.
Hernandez will never let anyone forget that he once hit grand slam off Johan Santana in 2008, but he won’t be recalling his two plate appearance on this night.
In the third inning, Mike Zunino and Dee Gordon led off with back-to-back singles to bring Hernandez to the plate. His job was to bunt them into scoring position. He got the ball down, but it was hard and went directly to Nix, who turned and fired to shortstop Freddy Galvis at second. Galvis then had plenty of time to throw to first to complete the double play.
Two innings later, the duo of Zunino and Gordon produced back-to-back singles with one out. Asked to bunt again, Hernandez put down a somewhat better bunt toward third. Nix made an athletic play to field it and throw to third baseman Wil Myers for an out. Myers then fired to first to get Hernandez for another double play.
“Two doubles plays,” Hernandez said. “Those were key. The first one was bad. That was my fault. The second one I thought was pretty good. The pitcher moved pretty fast.”
Servais was diplomatic about the failures.
“It’s challenging and we don’t do it a lot in our league,” Servais said. “We certainly ask our pitchers to do it. Those were two big, big plays. I thought their pitcher made two really nice plays. You have to take advantage of opportunities. We get the singles from Z and Dee and just couldn’t move them along.”
The Mariners thought they had their first run in the sixth inning. Segura hit a triple to right field with two outs and Nelson Cruz hit a hard ground ball that seemed destined to get to left field. But shortstop Galvis made a brilliant diving stop and fired to first from his knees to get a hustling Cruz for the final out of the inning.
Unlike the batter’s box, Hernandez was better on the mound, making just a handful of mistakes in his seven innings, including a first-pitch homer for his outing.
It’s happened to Hernandez multiple times over the past few seasons. And perhaps Travis Jankowski saw something in the scouting report about it.
But when Felix Hernandez threw a “get-me-over” fastball for that first pitch of the game — a pitch watched by many hitters — Jankowski pounced on the gift, sending a solo homer over the wall in right field. It was just his third homer of the season and his first leadoff homer of his career.
The other run allowed came in the fourth inning. With one out, Wil Myers doubled to deep left-center and later scored on Hunter Renfroe’s two-out single through the left side.