PITTSBURGH — Jesus Montero summed up the Seattle Mariners’ 2-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park succinctly.
“That’s crazy what’s happening,” he said. “(Felix Hernandez) pitches. I hit a homer. He wins. Unbelievable.”
There you have it.
When Hernandez (5-2) is on the mound, he makes Seattle an elite team. On a day when runs were even more difficult to come by than usual for the offensively-challenged Mariners facing the hard-throwing A.J. Burnett, Hernandez made sure that two runs would be enough to win the game.
“Felix was outstanding again,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said.
Over his past five starts, Hernandez has been brilliant, pitching 38 innings and allowing three earned runs for a 0.71 earned-run average with 40 strikeouts and three walks.
And Hernandez didn’t even feel like he had his best stuff against Pittsburgh.
“It was just OK,” he said. “Not as good as normally, but it was good.”
Yet he managed to give the Mariners eight good innings. It’s part of his maturation from thrower to a pitcher – finding ways to win games when his best stuff isn’t there.
“I always think like that,” Hernandez said. “If you don’t have your best stuff, you have to go out there and fight, and find different ways to get people out.”
It was evident in the first inning.
Hernandez gave up a lead-off double to Starling Marte and later an RBI single to Andrew McCutchen. Felix then walked Garrett Jones to put runners on first and second with one out. But instead of trying to bully past Michael McKenry with a strikeout, Hernandez coaxed a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning.
“He just gets a little mad because he doesn’t like that,” Montero said of Hernandez’s first inning. “After that, he got going and everything was fine.”
That was all the Pirates would get. Hernandez allowed four more hits, but no runner made it to third. The most serious threat came in the fifth when Jordy Mercer doubled down the left-field line to start the inning. Hernandez got Clint Barmes to pop out and struck out Burnett and Marte, stranding Mercer at second.
“Yeah, the first inning, they got me pretty good,” Hernandez said. “I left a couple of pitches down the middle. I knew it was going to be hard because A.J. is nasty. After the first, I had to get my command back and throw strikes, and that’s what I did.”
With Hernandez stymieing the Pirates, the Mariners tried to find a way to manufacture runs against Burnett.
It wasn’t easy.
Burnett was perfect until Michael Saunders drew a lead-off walk to start the fourth. Saunders' presence on first base and his ability to steal bases was clearly distracting to Burnett, who uncorked a wild pitch to let Saunders advance to second. Still rattled, Burnett then walked Jason Bay.
The two runners advanced into scoring position on Kendrys Morales’ one-out ground ball to first. With two outs, Burnett uncorked a wild pitch, allowing Saunders to dash home and tie the game.
Seattle broke up Burnett’s no-hit bid an inning later, as Endy Chavez notched an infield single.
But it was the second hit that Burnett gave up that was the most costly. In the seventh inning, Montero jumped on the first pitch he saw from Burnett – a 91 mph fastball – and drove it over the wall in right-center for his third home run of the season.
“I was looking for fastball and he left it down the middle, and I hit it good,” Montero said.
It was his third home run of the season – all of them coming in Hernandez starts. Always emotional, Hernandez was more than a little excited to see the ball go over the fence for his catcher.
“Oh my god, I was really happy,” Hernandez said. “He came up big.”
Wedge hopes the home run is something Montero can use to build some consistency.
“It was a big boost and it should be a huge boost,” Wedge said. “It’s not just hitting the ball there (to right-center), but driving the ball there. The kid’s working hard. He’s so young and he’s learning so much. I think he’s starting to get to the point where he can put a little more energy into his hitting because he has been catching there for a little bit now.”
Given the lead, Hernandez pitched scoreless innings in the seventh and eighth before giving way to Tom Wilhelmsen, who pitched the ninth to earn his ninth save of the season.
The win allowed the Mariners to finish the short trip with a 3-2 record and improve to 16-19 on the season.
“Our guys are fighting hard man,” Wedge said. “You know every pitch could be the ball game. Those are hard-fought ball games.”