The role of a true ace to a baseball team is more than one told by numbers. It is a role that lives in the unstable, endlessly elastic state of a 162-game Major League Baseball regular season. It feeds on momentum.
Felix Hernandez, the Mariners unquestioned ace, took the mound Saturday evening against the Texas Rangers with the task of reversing the errant momentum of a 4-game losing streak. It is a position that Hernandez (2-0, 2.37 ERA) has more experience with than he or his manager care to admit. It’s one he now thrives in.
Hernandez turned in another brilliant effort in front of 43,017 fans at Safeco Field, rising to the occasion once again. He worked seven innings, allowing one earned run on two hits, two hit batters and one walk. Hernandez struck out 12 while notching his first win over Texas in the 3-1 Mariners victory since 2012.
Perhaps, most importantly his teammates feel it. They sense the chance to start anew every fifth day when Hernandez stands atop the mound.
“Definitely the stopper,” Mariners shortstop Brad Miller said. “Anytime he’s out there you feel that you’re going to win one . . . When he gets out there you know your fortunes can change pretty quick.”
Hernandez was pitching on a full five days’ rest for the second consecutive start thanks to another mid-week off day. In his previous outing, Hernandez wasn’t quite himself. Oakland roughed him up for three runs on eight hits and a walk in five innings. Hernandez battled a tight right quadriceps and a sore ankle. It wasn’t his day.
As the Rangers found out Saturday, that is not often the case for consecutive starts.
“He was great considering he was coming off an injury,” Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon said. “He really battled and he battled me to stay in the game. But just a gutsy performance.”
After an 18-pitch first inning in which Hernandez yielded a leadoff double to Leonys Martin that escaped a lunging Logan Morrison, The King slowly began to find the command of his offspeed arsenal. He began to spot his curveball and slider for strikes down at the knees or on the outside edge of the plate to frustrate his opposition.
In the fifth inning, after his team gave him a 1-0 lead, Hernandez ran into his only trouble of the game. With one out, Jake Smolinski checked his swing on an 0-2 fastball up and in, then cried out in pain as if the ball glanced off his top hand. The home-plate umpire believed him, awarding him first base even though all indications other than the acting of Smolinski showed a foul ball off the handle.
As expected, the baserunner came back to hurt the Mariners. Martin collected his second hit of the game, a single to the right side, pushing Smolinski over to third. Elvis Andrus followed with a ground out to score Smolinski, tying the game 1-1.
On the first pitch of the bottom half of the inning, Hernandez’s battery mate Mike Zunino flipped the momentum back in favor of Seattle. Zunino drove a hanging slider from Texas starter Colby Lewis into the upper deck of the left-field bleachers for his first home run of the year and a 2-1 M’s lead. It was the response Hernandez needed. The right-hander cruised to his second victory while stretching his pitch count to 111.
At 98 pitches after a successful 1-2-3 sixth, Hernandez took the mound in the seventh and promptly struck out the side, notching strikeouts 10, 11 and 12, on 13 pitches. Danny Farquhar and Fernando Rodney worked 1-2-3 innings in the eighth and ninth to hand Seattle its first win in eight night contests in the 2015 season.
The seventh inning was not guaranteed to Hernandez. McClendon had both left-handed reliever Charlie Furbush and the right-handed Farquhar up the previous inning if any trouble were to mount. The bottom of the sixth was also a long half-inning as Texas made a pitching change and Seattle loaded the bases while increasing its lead to 3-1.
“I was more concerned with the quad because he had felt two or three times during the course of the game with a couple fake bunts and trying to get over to first (base),” McClendon said.
Hernandez actually thought the minor injury helped him Saturday.
“(My) comfort level was fine. I think (the quad) helped me to stay back a little bit more, not to push too much, not to jump too much,” Hernandez said.
McClendon was concerned about the quad which may have tightened on Felix after a first-inning bunt attempt by Andrus. Hernandez, though, was adamant that he could pitch another inning. What did he tell his manager to persuade him for one more inning?
“I told him, ‘We need this win, so let me go back out,'” said Hernandez.
Hard to argue with the man who can alter the team’s momentum with one outing.