TORONTO — Felix Hernandez is on one of those dominant runs again — the ones where opposing batters probably feel like they are wasting their time the moment they step into the batter’s box.
Hernandez is good to great every time he steps on the mound. But there are times when he seems even better than that. He becomes almost untouchable.
Friday night was one of those times.
Hernandez threw eight shutout innings against the reeling Toronto Blue Jays, giving up five hits and striking out seven on 95 pitches in the Mariners’ 4-0 victory at the Rogers Centre. Seattle has now won four of its past five games.
“He did another great job tonight,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said of Felix. “I’m just really impressed with the way he is staying in his delivery and the consistency of his release point. And right along with that, the way he’s been spotting his fastball and working off of it.”
With the outing, Hernandez lowered his earned-run average to a minuscule 1.60 in seven starts. The last four starts he has allowed just two earned runs in 30 innings pitched while striking out 35 batters.
“I’ve been aggressive and I’ve been throwing a lot of strikes and getting ahead of hitters,” Hernandez said. “That’s the key for me.”
That kind of pitching allows Hernandez to be extraordinarily efficient. He had 14 ground-ball outs to go with the seven strikeouts — 21 of the 27 outs in the game.
“Definitely, I will take that,” he said. “I had a good sinker, and we played good defense. We made a lot of good plays.”
It helped that the free-swinging Blue Jays used the philosophy most teams employ against Hernandez – swing early and often because it might be the best pitch you will see.
And Felix used that to his advantage by pounding the strike zone with sinkers and diving change-ups to get those ground-ball outs.
“I knew they were going to swing at the first pitch,” he said. “I knew they are going to swing a lot. That’s what they do.”
While Hernandez was dominating, the Mariners made sure not to give him their typical run support (3.17 runs) when he starts.
The Mariners took advantage of the revamped, but obviously not recovered, Rickey Romero. The one-time star left-hander has struggled over the past two seasons. He started this season in Class A Dunedin, where he was sent to work on his pitching mechanics. However, right-hander Josh Johnson got injured, and the Blue Jays were forced to bring Romero back after just one start.
He was shaky but effective for the first three innings, allowing one hit, but things fell apart in the fourth inning. Michael Saunders drew a leadoff walk, then Kyle Seager jumped on the first pitch he saw from Romero — an 89 mph fastball — and launched it into the second deck in right field for his fourth homer of the season.
Seager has had his share of struggles against left-handed pitchers in the past, but has worked hard at getting better.
“I think confidence is part of it, and you try to stay simple,” he said. “There were a couple of different things we’ve done with my feet so I don’t cut myself off against lefties.”
Seager’s two-run homer rattled the already-shaky Romero.
Romero hit Kendrys Morales, got a pretty generous strike three call to Michael Morse, then walked Jason Bay and Justin Smoak to load the bases. Dustin Ackley added to the lead, lacing a hard single to right field on a full count to score Morales for a 3-0 lead.
The Mariners seemed poised to turn it into a blowout. But the patience of making Romero throw strikes before swinging ended with Jesus Montero and Brendan Ryan. Montero swung at a 1-0 pitch and fouled it off, then fouled off another before hitting a grounder back to the mound for a fielder’s choice out at home. After taking the first pitch for a ball, Ryan fouled the next pitch off then popped out to second on the next to end the inning.
The Mariners tacked on an insurance run in the sixth as Jason Bay hit his third home run of the season, lining an opposite-field line drive over the wall in right.
“He’s swinging the bat very well,” Wedge said. “Another big hit tonight. It’s a great sign when you see a right-hander drive the ball the other way like he did.”
The four runs were more than enough for Hernandez.
Leadoff singles in the fourth and seventh innings were quickly erased by 5-4-3 double plays.
The only real trouble came in the eighth. Hernandez gave up a leadoff double to Adam Lind and Colby Rasmus followed with a single to put runners on the corners with no outs.
But again Hernandez got a double play — albeit an unconventional one — to help him out. Maicier Izturis hit a hard line drive to third base that Seager coolly nabbed. He then fired a laser of a throw to first to double-off the stunned Rasmus.
“It was (a) quick, line drive right to him,” Wedge said. “There’s not much the guy at first can do right there. He’s just taking a secondary lead.”
With two outs and a runner at third base, Hernandez got former teammate Munenori Kawasaki to tap out to end the inning.
The eight innings would be plenty on the night for Hernandez. He didn’t even put up much of a fight when Wedge let him know his night was done and Tom Wilhelmsen was coming in for him.
“He was done,” Wedge said. “He’d had enough.”
Wilhelmsen pitched a scoreless ninth for his ninth save.