SEATTLE – Before he took the mound on Sunday afternoon and achieved a career milestone significant enough to warrant stadium-wide recognition, Felix Hernandez called his mom.
It was Mother’s Day, after all, so Hernandez phoned home to Venezuela to check in with his mother, Mirian.
He said she told him to “go out there and do what you know to do. Pitch good.”
So he did.
“My mom’s from Venezuela and I miss her so much,” Hernandez said. “I just wanted to go out there and try to help the team win and dedicate this game to my mom and my wife.”
That’s what Hernandez wanted to talk about after the Seattle Mariners beat the Oakland Athletics, 4-3, to complete a sweep of this three-game series at Safeco Field. He allowed two runs in seven innings and improved his season record to 6-0 in seven starts.
And he also became the fourth-youngest pitcher in Major League history to reach the 2,000-strikeout mark, accomplishing that honor with a strikeout of Sam Fuld to lead off the fifth inning. Bert Blyleven, Sam McDowell and Walter Johnson are the only pitchers to record their 2,000th career strikeout at a younger age.
After home-plate umpire Will Little called Fuld out on strikes, the game paused briefly and the stadium scoreboards lit up with acknowledgment of the feat. The 42,831 in attendance – many of them mothers wearing sun hats given to them upon entry – gave a standing ovation. The ball was removed from play for safekeeping.
Hernandez, unsurprisingly, said he wasn’t thinking much about the personal landmark.
“I was thinking about having a good game for my mom and my wife,” he said.
That’s fine. Others were more willing to shower their ace with genuine praise.
For instance, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon: “From afar, when I was on the other side, I knew he was good, but I didn’t know he was this great of a competitor, and just even a better teammate. The accolades just keep coming and coming with this guy. He’s a delight to watch every fifth day. I think we’re all blessed. I’m not sure if everybody realizes what he’s actually doing, but this guy’s real, real good.”
Or Mariners center-fielder Dustin Ackley, whose two-out, two-run double in the fourth inning gave Seattle (14-17) a 3-1 lead: “It seems like every game now he pitches he’s setting a milestone. It’s pretty cool to watch. I’ve been here with him for the perfect game and all these things and it keeps getting better and better.”
Even when he’s not at his best. That’s perhaps the most impressive trait Hernandez possesses – the ability to grind through innings and get outs when he’s not throwing with absolute supremacy.
He wasn’t on Sunday, because he allowed a pair of solo home runs to second-year shortstop Marcus Semien – one in the third, and another to lead off the sixth.
But that was all Oakland could muster against him. Charlie Furbush pitched a scoreless eighth inning, and Fernando Rodney earned the save despite Stephen Vogt’s homer in the ninth. Hernandez finished with six strikeouts and a walk, and threw 103 pitches.
“What a competitor,” McClendon marveled. “Today he didn’t have his greatest stuff, (but) he went out and competed and gave us a chance to win the ballgame.”
Which made it especially important for Ackley to come through when he did, facing Oakland starter Jesse Chavez with runners on second and third base and two outs in the fourth. Kyle Seager had already driven in Seattle’s first run with a double of his own, and two batters later, Ackley sliced a double to left-center field to score both Seager from second and Nelson Cruz from third.
Combined with Robinson Cano’s sacrifice fly in the fifth, that was all Hernandez needed.
“Just kind of the situation, being a close game like that, and with Felix on the mound too, any time you can get him some run support, it’s huge,” said Ackley, who entered the game batting .189. “I think anytime you can get a lead like that with him on the mound, he can settle in and do his thing, and he did.”
Just as his mother requested.
Christian Caple can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ChristianCaple