OAKLAND, Calif. – Something has to change for Felix Hernandez before he steps to the mound to start a game.
Whatever he’s been doing in his preparation for his starts this season – his warmup routine, his shoe choice, his chewing gum selection, his game plan – it just isn’t working at the level he or the Mariners expect.
Over his 14-year career, the first inning has been an issue for him, like it is for many starting pitchers. But this season the first inning of his outings have turned into a pitch-filled, run-allowing adventure. It’s made victory in those outings vary from difficult to impossible.
The latest ordeal came on Wednesday in a 4-3 loss to the Oakland A’s in which the Mariners’ five-game winning streak – their longest of the season – was snapped in a forgettable defeat.
The A’s scored all four of their runs in the first inning against Hernandez and then mustered just one base runner over the next eight innings. But the four runs proved to be enough. Facing a cadre of A’s relievers making a bullpen start, the Mariners offense, which was largely unimpressive for most of the three-game series, managed to self-immolate any rally hopes by hitting into five double plays.
The Mariners fell to 29-20 and return home to open a 10-game homestand on Friday night, starting with a three-game series vs. the Minnesota Twins.
“We won the series, but it’s disappointing we didn’t sweep,” M’s manager Scott Servais said. “We have been playing very good baseball. We’ve been pitching very well. We’ve had timely hitting. But it wasn’t enough today.”
It doesn’t help the outcome when Hernandez spots a team four runs in the first.
“It’s a hurdle that he’s got to get over,” Servais said. “Obviously, it’s hurt him the last few times out. It puts us behind the eight ball early.”
Hernandez has allowed runs in the first inning in six of his 11 starts, including three in his previous outing. Teams are hitting higher than .300 with an on-base plus slugging percentage of more than 1.000 against him in the first.
“Every five days I’m here talking with you guys about it,” Hernandez said. “It’s the same history. First inning three runs and I settle down. Today it was four runs in the first inning. It’s frustrating.”
Given a 1-0 lead in the top of the first, Hernandez’s opening inning was bad from the first pitch that left his hand. He gave up back-to-back singles to Matt Joyce and Marcus Semien to start the game.
He retired the next two batters as Jed Lowrie scored Joyce with a sacrifice fly to left and Matt Olson was rung up on a called third strike by plate umpire C.B. Bucknor that wasn’t close to being strike.
But Hernandez couldn’t take advantage of the good fortune and limit the damage to one run. He walked Matt Chapman and then allowed a missile of a double off the wall in left-center by Stephen Piscotty to score two runs. Dustin Fowler followed with a single to left to make it 4-1.
He’s allowed 14 runs in the 11 first innings this season. A 12.27 ERA in the first inning is a problem that has to be corrected.
“We are rolling and I have to help this team to win,” Hernandez said. “I have to figure out how to be better in the first inning.”
What can he do?
“I think it’s the preparation and the focus coming out in the first inning,” Servais said. “Some guys have the ability to work their way through it. Felix needs to maybe come out with more piss and vinegar, so to speak, in the first inning because the game can be lost in the first inning. It’s hard. I’ve often talked about the first inning being the most challenging for pitchers to settle in with what what’s working.”
The notoriously stubborn Hernandez is even open to suggestions from anyone, including pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr.
“I have to sit down with Mel and ask what he’s got for me,” Hernandez said. “It’s everything. It’s probably my command. I don’t have command of my fastball. That’s one problem.”
Hernandez said he might try and throw the last 10 pitches of his warmup at maximum effort to see if that will help.
After the first-inning debacle, Hernandez settled in and retired 15 of the next 16 batters he faced.
“I had the same stuff I had and they don’t hit me,” he said.
As they’ve done so often, the Mariners tried to rally. David Freitas cut the lead to 4-2 in the second on an RBI single to left.
In the eighth with runners on the corners and two outs, Kyle Seager yanked a double to left that scored Mitch Haniger from third. But Servais didn’t pinch run Nelson Cruz at first base and the big designated hitter, who is dealing with a bone bruise in his foot, wasn’t able to lumber around the bases to score the tying run.
“We discussed it briefly there,” Servais said. “But with how Piscotty plays, he’s so deep down the corner, but things happen. If we had to do it all over again, yeah, we probably should have. But we had a lot of chances today and just didn’t get it done.”
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