In season opener, Mariners manage just three hits and ace Felix Hernandez leaves after five-plus innings with tightness in his groin muscle.
HOUSTON — Losing on opening day isn’t enjoyable. Getting shut out in that defeat adds to the frustration. But having your opening-day starting pitcher leave the game with an injury?
So how’s your 2017 season so far, Mariners?
Seattle’s 3-0 loss to the Astros on Monday at Minute Maid Park was a minor letdown to start a season filled with optimism and expectations. Mustering three hits and failing to score a run with a potent lineup was exasperating and unexpected, but shouldn’t be commonplace for the season.
No, the biggest concern is Felix Hernandez exiting the game after just five innings because of tightness in his groin. The injury isn’t deemed to be serious. But it was still concerning enough to remove Hernandez after just 65 pitches.
“Right now, I think he’s going to be fine to make his next start,” manager Scott Servais said. “We just thought with where we were at there, it was time to get him out.”
It’s a logical move considering there are 161 games remaining on the schedule. With Drew Smyly already on the disabled list with a strained flexor muscle in his forearm and not scheduled to return for 6-8 weeks, the Mariners can ill afford to be down another starting pitcher, particularly Hernandez, who they hope will have a bounce-back season after a dismal 2016 where he missed six weeks on the disabled list. There was no reason to push him and risk making it worse.
Hernandez shrugged it off after the game.
“It wasn’t bad, just a little tight,” he said. “It’s not going to be bad. I think I’m going to be OK.”
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Asked if he would make his next start on Saturday in Anaheim, Hernandez replied quickly.
“Oh yeah, for sure,” he said. “I’ll be there.”
The injury occurred with one out in the fourth inning on Josh Reddick’s crisp ground ball to the right side of the infield.
Hernandez admitted he was slow to react and leave the mound to cover first base. So when Danny Valencia fielded the ball with ease and was ready to flip it to Hernandez at first, he saw his pitcher in a panicked dash trying to catch up.
Valencia made a nice toss to lead Hernandez, who caught the ball and beat Reddick to the bag by a step.
In a scene that has become all-too-familiar when Hernandez makes those plays at first, he came up limping. Initially, the thought was that he had turned his right ankle. His ankles have shown the durability of dry spaghetti for most of his career.
But it wasn’t the ankle this time. The groin had tightened up in the sprint to first. Hernandez met with Servais and trainer Rick Griffin on the mound, threw a couple of warmup tosses and declared himself good to go. He closed out the inning by getting Yuli Gurriel to ground out to third.
Hernandez returned in the fifth inning and worked a 1-2-3 frame, which was aided by Jarrod Dyson’s outstanding catch in the left-field corner on a line drive off the bat of former Mariner Norichika Aoki.
After that inning, the tightness in the groin continued to bother Hernandez. He met with trainers, Servais and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. When they decided to pull him, he was visibly irritated by the decision. Despite Hernandez’s mild protests, it was the proper decision given the situation.
His line: five innings, two runs on five hits with no walks and six strikeouts.
“He was throwing the ball great, really had good stuff tonight,” Servais said. “He was sharp except for the couple of mistakes.”
The two runs came via a pair of solo homers, including one on the first hitter Hernandez faced.
George Springer, the Astros’ ultra-aggressive leadoff man who swings hard and often and strikes out at a rate commensurate with that approach, became the second Astros player in team history to lead off the season with a homer. Terry Puhl accomplished the feat twice in his career.
Hernandez left a 2-1 fastball up in the zone on the inner half of the plate. Springer clubbed the mistake into the Crawford Boxes in left field for a 1-0 lead.
“I was trying to go down and away, but the ball came back to the middle of the plate,” Hernandez said.
The Astros pushed the lead to 2-0 when Carlos Correa led off the inning with a majestic, towering homer to left field that stayed just inside the foul pole, but traveled out of the confines of Minute Maid. MLB Statcast measured the blast at 449 feet.
Perhaps more impressive was Correa being able to keep the pitch fair. The 1-1 fastball was inside and off the plate and was not a strike.
While Hernandez would admit fault in the Springer homer, he wouldn’t for Correa.
“One mistake and it was to Springer,” he said. “The other was a good pitch. I’ve got to tip my hat to Correa. He put a good swing on it. I was like, ‘get out, get foul.’ It was unbelievable.”
Hernandez’s replacement, Nick Vincent, surrendered Houston’s other run in the sixth inning, allowing two base runners and a sacrifice fly from Correa.
But really all the Astros needed was one run in the game.