Six days removed from leaving his previous start due to a tight quadriceps and a twisted ankle, Felix Hernandez’s health Saturday night was an estimated “98 percent,” Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said.
The Texas Rangers, who found Hernandez mostly unhittable, might disagree. Or simply wonder how much better King Felix might have been with that other 2 percent.
Sharp as ever, Hernandez struck out 12 batters and allowed only two hits in seven innings — and the only run he allowed was the byproduct of a puzzling hit-by-pitch ruling — as the Mariners snapped a four-game losing streak with a 3-1 victory over the Rangers before a boisterous crowd of 43,017 at Safeco Field.
Fernando Rodney pitched a hitless, scoreless ninth inning — how about that? — to pick up the save and give the Mariners a chance to win this three-game series on Sunday afternoon.
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They can thank their ace for the opportunity.
“(Hernandez) was great, considering he was coming off of an injury,” McClendon said. “Still wasn’t 100 percent, but I think that just goes to show the type of competitor that he really is. He really battled, and he battled me to stay in the game. But just a gutsy performance.”
Against Hernandez, center fielder Leonys Martin was the only successful Rangers player at the plate, aside from the two batters Hernandez walked and the two he hit with pitches. Martin doubled to lead off the first inning, and singled in the fifth to help set up Texas’ only run … and Hernandez, pitching on a night in which 20,000 fans received a bobblehead doll in his likeness, promptly retired the final eight batters he faced, five of them via strikeout.
And he struck out the side in the seventh inning after convincing McClendon to leave him in the game despite having already thrown 98 pitches and experiencing some soreness in his injured right quad.
McClendon wanted to take him out, but Hernandez protested, repeatedly, telling his manager that “it’s a close game. Let me go back out. We need this win.”
That’s not the kind of argument Hernandez usually wins, so it rates as a surprise that McClendon relented.
“But I also told him that we’re not going to have many of these conversations,” McClendon said. “But I do trust him. He was adamant about it, and I let him go back out there.”
Hernandez responded by striking out Carlos Peguero, Rougned Odor and Jake Smolinski with a total of 13 pitches, then punctuated his departure with an enthusiastic smack of his glove.
“To be at 98 pitches and go out and do what he did in that seventh,” catcher Mike Zunino said, “was huge for us.”
The Mariners (4-7) ran themselves out of a trio of potential scoring opportunities in the first three innings — Austin Jackson was thrown out at home, Kyle Seager was caught trying to steal second and Miller was picked off of second base by the catcher — but took a 1-0 lead in the fourth inning when Seth Smith lifted a sacrifice fly to right field to score Robinson Cano from third base.
Zunino led off the fifth inning with a 412-foot home run into the upper deck in left field, and Miller drove in Seager with a two-out triple in the sixth.
Zunino’s homer was particularly important, because it came not long after the strange call that led to Texas’ lone run against Hernandez in the top half of that inning. With one out and nobody on base, a Hernandez pitch appeared to strike the hand of Rangers left fielder and No. 9 hitter Smolinski, who reacted as if he’d been hit and was awarded first base.
McClendon argued with home-plate umpire Adam Hamari, and eventually chose to challenge the call. Slow-motion replays appeared to show the ball glancing off Smolinski’s bat, but the ruling was upheld after review, and Smolinski advanced to third on Martin’s subsequent single to right field.
Think Hernandez disagreed with the call? When told after the game that he’d been charged with two hit-by-pitches, he quickly corrected: “It was only one. The other was a foul ball.”
The next batter, Elvis Andrus, grounded out to Miller at shortstop, allowing Smolinski to run home and tie the score 1-1.
“It is what it is,” McClendon said. “It’s unfortunate that it cost us a run.”
But Zunino crushed the first pitch he saw from Rangers starter Colby Lewis (1-1, 3.79) to start the bottom of the fifth, and that was all the support Hernandez — and Seattle’s bullpen — needed.
“Big situation,” said Zunino, who entered the game batting just .121. “Obviously, you want to do whatever you can. Felix did a great job of keeping us in that ball game, so any runs we can get in a game like that are huge.”
Danny Farquhar pitched a spotless eighth inning, including a pair of strikeouts. And Rodney, whose previous appearance yielded a blown save in a 6-5 loss earlier this week at the Dodgers, retired the Rangers in order in the ninth inning to earn his third save of the season.
“I thought he was pretty focused, pretty determined tonight, for a lot of reasons,” McClendon said. “He’s been beaten down pretty good. But I thought he was very determined, very focused tonight.”
Following Hernandez’s lead, perhaps.