TORONTO – Felix Hernandez is on one of those runs of dominance again. You know one of those runs where opposing batters feel like they are wasting their time the moment they step in the batter’s box.
Yes, Hernandez is good to great every time he steps on the mound. It’s why he’s won a Cy Young award, made three all-star teams and signed a gargantuan $175 million contract.
But there are times in the season where he seems better than good or great. He becomes almost untouchable.
This is one of those times.
Hernandez tossed eight shutout innings against the reeling Toronto Blue Jays, giving up five hits and striking out seven batters on just 95 pitches in the Mariners’ 4-0 win Friday night at the Rogers Centre. Seattle has now won four of its last five games.
“He did another great job tonight,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “I’m just really impressed with the way he is staying in his delivery and the consistency of his release point. And right along with that, the way he’s been spotting his fastball and working off of it.”
With the outing, Hernandez lowered his earned run average to a minuscule 1.60 in seven starts this season. The last four starts he’s allowed just two earned runs in 30 innings pitched while striking out 35 batters.
What’s his secret?
“I’ve been aggressive and I’ve been throwing a lot of strikes and getting ahead of hitters,” he said. “That’s the key for me.”
That kind of pitching allows Hernandez to be brutally efficient. He had 14 ground ball outs to go with the seven strikeouts – that’s 21 of the 27 outs in the game.
“Definitely, I will take that,” Hernandez said. “I had a good sinker and we played good defense. We made a lot of good plays.”
It helped that the free-swinging Jays tried the philosophy most teams employ against Hernandez – swing often and swing early because it might be the best pitch you see.
Of course, Hernandez knows that. And he’s content to just use it to his advantage by pounding the strike zone with sinkers and diving change-ups to get those ground ball outs.
“I knew they were going to swing at the first pitch,” he said. “I knew they are going to swing a lot. That’s what they do.”
While Hernandez was dominating, the Mariners made sure not give him their typical anemic run support (3.17 runs) he usually enjoys in his starts.
The Mariners took advantage the revamped and obviously still not recovered Rickey Romero. The one-time star left-hander has struggled over the past two seasons. He started this season in Class A Dunedin where he was sent to work on readjusting his pitching mechanics. However, right-handed Josh Johnson was injured and the Blue Jays forced Romero back after just one start.
The lefty was shaky but effective for the first three innings, allowing just one hit. But the start fell apart in the fourth inning. Michael Saunders drew a lead-off walk against Romero. Kyle Seager then jumped on the first pitch he saw from Romero – an 89 mph fastball – launching into the second deck in right field for his fourth homer of the season.
Seager has had his share of struggles against left-handed pitchers in the past, but he’s worked hard at getting better.
“I think confidence is part of it, and you try to stay simple,” he said. “There were a couple of different things we’ve done with my feet so I don’t cut myself off against lefties.”
While lefties have hit Romero well over the last few seasons, Seager, who went 3-for-4 on the night, also hit a hard single to right off left side-armer Aaron Loup in his next at-bat.
“Just letting the ball travel and seeing it is a big part,” Wedge said. “But also having the same direction he has against right-handers. When he does that, he uses the entire field. He’s just putting himself in a better position to hit left-handers this year.”
Seager’s two-run homer rattled Romero, whose confidence wasn’t high coming in.
Romero hit Kendrys Morales, got a pretty generous strike three call to Michael Morse, then walked JasonBay and Justin Smoak to load the bases. Dustin Ackley added to the lead, lacing a hard single to right field to score Morales to make it 3-0.
The Mariners seemed poised to turn it into a blowout. But the patience of making Romero throw strikes before swinging ended with Jesus Montero and Brendan Ryan. Montero swung at a 1-0 pitch and fouled it off and then fouled off another before hitting a grounder off of Romero back to the mound for a fielder’s choice out at home. After taking the first pitch, Ryan swung at the next two, flying out to right to end the inning.
“I felt like our guys did do a pretty good job with that,” Wedge said. “We still left some guys out there, but we did make him work for it.”
The Mariners tacked on an insurance run in the sixth as Jason Bay hit his third home run of the season, lining an opposite field line drive over the wall in right.
“He’s swinging the bat very well,” Wedge said. “Another big hit tonight. It’s a great sign when you see a right-hander drive the ball the other way like he did.”
The four runs were more than enough for Hernandez.
Lead-off singles in the fourth and seventh innings were quickly erased by 5-4-3 double plays.
The only real trouble came in the eighth inning. Hernandez gave up a lead-off double to Adam Lind and Colby Rasmus followed with a single to put runners on the corners with no outs.
But again Hernandez got a double play to help him out, but it was from conventional. Maicier Izturis hit a hard line drive to third which Seager coolly nabbed out of the air. He then fired a laser of a throw to first to double off the stunned Rasmus.
“It was quick, line drive right to him,” Wedge said. “There’s not much the guy at first can do right there. He’s just taking a secondary lead.”
With two outs and a runner at third, Hernandez got former teammate Munenori Kawasaki to tap out to end the inning.
The eight innings would be plenty on the night for Hernandez. He didn’t even put up much of a fight when Wedge came to let him know his night was done and Tom Wilhelmsen was coming in for him.
“He was done,” Wedge said. “He’d had enough.”
Wilhelmsen pitched a scoreless ninth.