Two pillars, both had avenues of their careers that pointed to the Hall of Fame, with Felix Hernandez trying to find a second life from his mileaged arm and Robinson Cano trying to restore his image from the cloud of performance-enhancing drugs, much like the cloud of smoke that filled Safeco Field from wildfires.
Both are enduring what’s surely the most challenged seasons of their combined 28 seasons in major league baseball.
This night, though, was return to vintage.
Moreso for Cano than Hernandez, but both powered the Seattle Mariners to a 7-4 victory over the Houston Astros on Monday, with Cano launching a three-run, go-ahead opposite-field home run into the thick of the smoke in the eighth inning after Hernandez pitched six much-needed innings.
“Oh, it felt great,” Cano said, smiling as he shook his head.
That homer was the first for Cano since he returned last week from his 80-game suspension for violating major league baseball’s joint drug agreement, when he was found to have taken a diuretic commonly used to mask PEDs.
But what a sweet swing.
“Especially in front of your home crowd – you miss those games,” Cano said. “You want to come back and you’re not going to make up for all those games, but the chance you get you got to take advantage and help this team.”
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-partner="tweetdeck"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Clutch oppo-tacos are the best. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/TrueToTheBlue?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#TrueToTheBlue</a> <a href="https://t.co/orwuqAxLcX">pic.twitter.com/orwuqAxLcX</a></p>— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) <a href="https://twitter.com/Mariners/status/1031790751061962752?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">August 21, 2018</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
He made an extremely difficult play look so easy. Cano soared the 93-mph fastball thrown to the outside part of the plate from Astros reliever Collin McHugh opposite field with one out in the eighth.
“It’s really hard to do that,” Mariners manager Scott Servais stressed. “That’s why he’s so talented and has had the career he’s had to this point.
“It’s a lot when you miss the 80 games, and you are remorseful and you feel bad and it feels like the only way you can really get back in it and help is to have a game like tonight. Now you feel like you’re a part of this and go forward.”
Cano also hit two doubles, passing Willie Mays and then tying Ken Griffey Jr. for 46th on MLB’s all-time list for most career doubles. Not bad company.
But the home run, Ben Gamel, who was fresh off playing with Cano in Triple-A Tacoma two weeks ago, said he headed back to the video room behind the Mariners’ dugout just to get a replay look at Cano’s swing.
“Oh my gosh, watching him – there’s nothing like it,” Gamel said. “I went to the video room literally right after that homer and I was like, ‘That’s the prettiest swing I’ve ever seen in my life.’”
That was set up after Servais had been ejected for arguing strikes on Dee Gordon’s at-bat.
Gordon then obliged by outracing McHugh to first base for an infield single and Haniger drew a walk to set up Cano’s heroics – his third extra-base hit of the game after two doubles earlier.
The Mariners’ (72-54) win moved them 3.5 games back of the Astros (75-50) in the American League West standings, with the A’s tied with Houston atop the division after Oakland improved to 41-14 since June 1.
Edwin Diaz locked down the ninth inning for his major-league leading 48th save – the 100th save of his career.
He’s now tied with Fernando Rodney (2014) for most saves in a season in franchise history, and two away from settling a bet he made with Servais that will bring about a Diaz-inspired haircut for the manager.
“Big milestone,” Servais said. “He’s getting closer and I’m getting closer to a haircut.”
But the Mariners needed Hernandez, a week after using him out of the bullpen for the first time in his 14-year career.
Wade LeBlanc pitched 4 1/3 innings on Friday, Erasmo Ramirez lasted a whole five innings Saturday and Roenis Elias – three innings in a 12-1 loss Sunday.
But Hernandez lasted even longer in this one long in this one than Astros starter Gerrit Cole, even though Hernandez doesn’t match Cole’s 99-mph fastball.
Hernandez lasted six innings after limiting early damage to the four runs on five hits with six strikeouts, including passing Andy Pettitte for No. 40 on major-league baseball’s all-time strikeouts list with his 2,449th to end the fifth inning.
Yes, top 40 all time in strikeouts for a career .. not that it had set in.
“Not yet,” Hernandez said. “I’m not done yet.”
Hernandez followed with 11 pitches to get through a 1-2-3 sixth inning, exiting after 100 total pitches for the outing.
Hernandez and Servais shared an animated conversation in the dugout afterward.
“It was back and forth about ‘Do you know what you did? Did you feel it?’ The player has to have a feel for what it was,” Servais said. “It was a marked different the last three innings.
“For me, the finish on his pitches, the extension down the mound, controlling his body over the rubber longer, getting the arm out front – it was a noticeable difference, which was great.”
And the Mariners’ offense made the at-times erratic Cole work for his five innings, scoring two runs in the first on Jean Segura’s ground ball after Cano’s double and Denard Span hit a sacrifice fly.
They had at least one hit every inning off of Cole, who entered with a 2.71 ERA, and cut the lead to 4-3 with Mike Zunino’s double to the right-center gap with Gamel, freshly recalled from his stay in Triple-A Tacoma in exchange for Guillermo Heredia, scoring all the way from first base.
With Cole out after the fifth, Gamel led off with a ground-rule double to straightaway center field off of Astros lefty Tony Sipp. He scored the tying run later on Haniger’s two-out single.
Here’s a hat
Felix Hernandez struck out his sixth batter of the game, getting Carlos Correa on a 91-mph sinker to end the fifth inning.
That was Hernandez’s 2,449th career strikeout, which moved him past Andy Pettitte for 40th-most strikeouts in major league baseball history.Hernandez wanted the ball, but it ended up with a fan just off of the first-base side of the park when Robinson Cano tossed it into the stands.
“I didn’t know,” Cano insisted.
So second baseman Dee Gordon trotted out there, offered the hat atop his head and a wristband and in exchange retrieved the ball for his pitcher.
So Gordon had to find a different hat to wear for the rest of the game.
“I see Fifi (Hernandez) asking where the ball was at, so I went and got it,” Gordon said. “I just had to give the stuff off my body.”
Hernandez pitched one more 1-2-3 inning to get through six. The most trouble he ran into was in the third, when he walked No. 9-hitter Tony Kemp to lead off the inning, then allowed an Alex Bregman single, Marwin Gonzalez’s two-run double and later threw a wild pitch that allowed Gonzalez to score for a 4-2 Astros lead.
Marwin vs. Felix
Marwin Gonzalez homered off of Hernandez in the first inning, followed with a hard two-run double in the third inning and he singled in the fifth in his first three at-bats.
He gave the Astros three of their four runs and improved to 9-for-21 (.429) against Hernandez for his career and he’s batting .383 (15-for-44) against the Mariners this season.
That’s his best batting average against any team in the majors this season that he’s played at least four games against. And that was his third home run against them, with only the Oakland Athletics seeing more Gonzalez homers.
So, how much did the Mariners miss Ben Gamel’s bat?
He just did what he’d been doing with Triple-A Tacoma. Gamel hit a single to right in his second at-bat before hustling from first to score on Mike Zunino’s double, then he hit what would have been a triple his next trip to the plate, but took a ground-rule double instead. He then scored the tying run that sixth inning on Mitch Haniger’s two-out single.
Gamel said he nailed down his timing even more getting to play every day in Tacoma.
“I’m a big believer in once I feel something I can repeat it,” Gamel said. “But sometimes it’s tough to get that feeling when you’re not playing every day. I went from competing to have my approach and my A-swing and being able to put good swings on pitches.”
Play of the game
Robinson Cano last hit a home run on May 12 in Detroit before fracturing his finger and then getting slammed with an 80-game drug suspension.
This was one he dreamed of, stepping to the plate in the bottom of the eighth inning, with a chance to not make up for all of lost time, but certainly a good portion and good graces of a Mariners organization that stood by him even while he was banned from the clubhouse with an unpaid suspension.
“Not only in that situation, but even playing in the backyard that’s what you dream of,” Cano said. “You always dream of that. That is a great feeling, especially to do it at home.
“I love this game so much and I love to play and I like to go out there every day and put myself in a position to play every day. I was hard on myself (during the suspension). I’m glad that I’m back and the last thing I can do is look back and worry about myself. It’s just about this team and that’s what matters to me right now.”
Robinson Cano finished the game going 3-for-5 with two doubles and the three-run home run. He now has 524 career doubles, which passed Willie Mays on the MLB all-time career list and he’s now tied with Ken Griffey Jr.
Not bad when you’re in a sentence with Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr.
Denard Span, though, had quality at-bats all night, hitting a double, a sacrifice fly and drawing a walk after being down 1-2 to Cole. Ben Gamel went 2-for-4 with a double and two runs scored, while Mitch Haniger went 2-for-4 with the tying RBI single and a walk.
Edwin Diaz bounced back from a blown save on Saturday with his major-league leading 48th save of the season. He’s now 48-for-52 in save opportunities this season.
Not only did he tie Fernando Rodney’s club record for saves in a season (Rodney had 48 saves in 2014) but he also picked up his 100th career save, which makes him the second fastest pitcher (by age) in MLB history to reach 100 saves since it became an official stat in 1969. Only current Astros closer Roberto Osuna reached 100 saves faster.
Diaz did it with another 1-2-3 inning, striking out two of the three batters.
The Mariners had 14 hits total.
“I thought that was the best offensive game at home we’ve had in quite some time,” Servais said. “Up and down the lineup tonight I thought the at-bats were great. We got to Cole who is one of the best right-handers in the league out of there after five innings.
“But certainly welcome back, Robbie Cano. Very talented player and he was due for one of those nights. To hit a ball the opposite field, the ball wasn’t going anywhere tonight and he really smoked it.”
No pun intended, even with the stadium filled with smoke from Eastern Washington forest fires.