PITTSBURGH — Jesus Montero summed up the Seattle Mariners’ 2-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park succinctly.
“That’s crazy what’s happening,” he said. “(Felix Hernandez) pitches. I hit a homer. He wins. Unbelievable.”
There you have it.
When Hernandez (5-2) is on the mound, he makes Seattle an elite team.
On a day when runs were even more difficult to come by than usual for the offense-challenged Mariners against hard-throwing A.J. Burnett, Hernandez made sure that two runs were enough to win.
“Felix was outstanding again,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said.
Over his past five starts, Hernandez has been brilliant, pitching 38 innings and allowing three earned runs for an earned run average of 0.71, with 40 strikeouts and three walks.
And Hernandez didn’t think he had his best stuff against Pittsburgh.
“It was just OK,” he said. “Not good as normally, but it was good.”
Yet, he managed to give the Mariners eight good innings. It’s part of his maturation from thrower to pitcher – finding ways to win games when his best stuff isn’t there.
“I always think like that,” Hernandez said. “If you don’t have your best stuff, you have to go out there and fight, and find different ways to get people out.”
That was evident in the first inning.
Hernandez gave up a leadoff double to Starling Marte and an RBI single to Andrew McCutchen.
He walked Garrett Jones to put runners on first and second with one out. But instead of trying to bully Michael McKenry with a strikeout, he coaxed a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning.
“He just gets a little mad because he doesn’t like that,” Montero said of Hernandez’s first inning. “After that, he got going and everything was fine.”
That was all the Pirates would get. Hernandez allowed four hits the rest of the way, but no runner made it to third. The most serious threat came in the fifth, when Jordy Mercer hit a leadoff double down the left-field line. But Hernandez got Clint Barmes to pop out, and struck out Burnett and Marte to strand Mercer at second.
“Yeah, the first inning, they got me pretty good,” Hernandez said. “I left a couple of pitches down the middle. I knew it was going to be hard because A.J. (Burnett) is nasty. After the first, I had to get my command back and throw strikes, and that’s what I did.”
While Hernandez stymied the Pirates, the Mariners tried to manufacture runs against Burnett.
It wasn’t easy.
Burnett was perfect through three innings until Michael Saunders drew a leadoff walk in the fourth. His presence on first base and his ability to steal bases was clearly distracting Burnett, who uncorked a wild pitch to put Saunders on second. Burnett then walked Jason Bay.
The two runners advanced on Kendrys Morales’ one-out groundout to first. With two outs, Burnett uncorked a wild pitch, allowing Saunders to dash home to tie the game.
Seattle broke up Burnett’s no-hit bid an inning later, when Endy Chavez notched an infield single.
But it was the second hit Burnett allowed that was the most costly. In the seventh inning, Montero jumped on the first pitch he saw from Burnett – a 91 mph fastball – and drove it over the wall in right-center field.
“I was looking for a fastball and he left it down the middle, and I hit it good,” Montero said.
It was his third home run of the season – all of them coming in Hernandez’s starts. Always emotional, Hernandez was more than a little excited to see his catcher send a ball over the fence.
“Oh my god, I was really happy,” Hernandez said. “He came up big.”
Wedge said he hopes the home run is something Montero can use to build some consistency.
“It was a big boost and it should be a huge boost,” Wedge said. “It’s not just hitting the ball there (to right-center field), but driving the ball there. The kid’s working hard. He’s so young and he’s learning so much. I think he’s starting to get to the point where he can put a little more energy into his hitting because he has been catching there for a little bit now.”
Given the lead, Hernandez held the Pirates scoreless in the seventh and eighth innings before giving way to Tom Wilhelmsen, who pitched a scoreless ninth for his ninth save of the season.
The win allowed the Mariners (16-19) to finish the short trip with a 3-2 record.
“Our guys are fighting hard, man,” Wedge said. “You know every pitch could be the ballgame. Those are hard-fought ballgames.”