ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – For the entirety of his decorated career, now in its 14th season with the Mariners, Felix Hernandez has longed for the day when he and the franchise would earn a spot in the postseason.
Realistically, there have only been a handful of times when that even seemed like a possibility after mid-July.
But this year, the Mariners have surged to an unexpectedly strong start, and making an appearance in the postseason – even if it is only the wild-card game – seems like something more than a hopeful possibility.
And the pitcher who stayed in Seattle and watched his best years get wasted by subpar talent and mismanaged teams is now atrophying into a detriment to his own dream.
After a strong start in his previous outing against the Rays in Seattle, Hernandez’s season-long struggles returned five days later at Tropicana Field in a 7-3 loss on Saturday.
He delivered his shortest and one of his least effective outings of the season, pitching just three innings, giving up six runs (five earned) on seven hits with a walk and two strikeouts.
“Felix’s stuff wasn’t as good today,” manager Scott Servais said. “It was evident right from the get-go. The life on the fastball really wasn’t there. It’s not all about velocity. It’s about locating it. And that wasn’t really on today, either.”
“I was making good pitches and they had some hits that found some holes, and there’s nothing I could do about that,” he said. “I think I had pretty good stuff, they just put a lot of balls in play, just a little bit of tough luck. I was a little bit up, but I think was making good pitches.”
And catcher Mike Zunino?
“He left some fastballs up in the zone,” Zunino said. “There’s been games where his velocity may not have been that high, but if he locates he can get away with stuff.”
Is it denial, delusion or the continued disconnect with Hernandez and who he is now as a pitcher despite the string of suboptimal results?
He fell to 6-5 in 14 starts with a 5.70 earned-run average this season. It’s the sixth time he’s given up four runs or more in a start, the fifth time in his past seven outings.
Simply put: He’s been the least effective starter in their rotation this season. And given who he is and what he’s done, it’s unlikely that he will be removed from it unless an injury puts him on the disabled list.
No, this has to be fixed. the Mariners have been trying that method for a while now, with uneven to unimpressive results.
Changes to his preparation, mindset and delivery were lauded after Hernandez’s previous outing against the Rays, when he pitched eight innings, allowing one run on five hits with a walk and seven strikeouts. But this recent start has become all too familiar and frustrating for the Mariners and their fans.
“He threw the ball very well and got very good results the last time out,” Servais said. “But the key in this league is being consistent, and going out there every start and giving your team a chance to win. And we were behind the eight ball after the third inning. I just want to see consistency and giving us a chance to win. And he does too.”
As has been the case far too often this season, Hernandez ran into trouble in the first inning. He limited the damage to one run, but his obvious lack of command didn’t get corrected.
Tampa scored three runs in the second, with three straight singles to start the inning and a miscommunication in the outfield causing most of the problems for Hernandez.
The Rays tacked on two more runs in the third inning with two outs. Hernandez walked Carlos Gomez, then gave up a triple off the top of the fence to light-hitting Mallex Smith and an RBI single to lighter-hitting Carlos Arroyo before getting the third out.
Servais had seen enough of Hernandez and went to long reliever Roenis Elias, who hadn’t pitched since June 1, to get some work. Elias pitched four innings, giving up one run on two hits with three strikeouts and a walk.
“Elias threw the ball great,” Servais said. “I was really happy with the way he threw. I thought he had great life on his fastball and changeup. He continues to impress when he’s out there.”
The Mariners offense put together much better at-bats against Shoreline’s Blake Snell compared to his previous outing, where he struck out 12 Seattle batters in six shutout innings.
The Mariners scored a run off Snell in the first inning and picked up another in the fifth on Nelson Cruz’s opposite-field homer, trimming the lead to 6-2. They added another against the Rays bullpen in the seventh.
But going 0 for 11 with runners in scoring position and stranding 10 runners on base isn’t ideal for a comeback.
To be fair, Mitch Haniger’s second-inning line drive with the bases loaded was snared on an outstanding leaping grab by shortstop Daniel Robertson. It would have scored at least two runs and changed the complexion of the game.