A two-game showdown between the top two teams in the American League West, and the Seattle Mariners’ top pitcher – Felix Hernandez – showed up at the ballpark feeling crappy Monday.
There was no question about whether he’d pitch. Even when sick, a staff ace with a 4-0 record has the right to talk his way into a game, and Hernandez did just that.
For three innings, Hernandez was dazzling, locked in a scoreless duel with Kevin Millwood and Texas – but three innings was about as much dazzle as Hernandez could produce, and the Rangers rallied to beat him, 6-5.
The game ended Felix’s scoreless streak at 22 innings, his winning streak at four and, despite Seattle’s hot start, narrowed the gap in the AL West to 11/2 games.
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“I woke up this morning and didn’t think I could pitch,” said Hedrandez, who had flu-like symptoms. “I felt a little better when I got to the park. I’ve pitched like this a couple of times and it was like tonight – sometimes good, sometimes bad.”
That up-and-down quality hit both pitchers, but Hernandez was just a little more down than Millwood, and that was the difference. The Mariners fell behind, 4-0, rallied to catch up and – an inning later – were behind again, 6-4.
“Felix had good stuff, it was just a matter of command,” manager Don Wakamatsu said. “He was up a few times and got hurt with those pitches, home runs to Michael Young and Chris Davis. If either of those pitches is down, it’s a different story, a different game.”
Millwood’s history with the Mariners is an odd one, filled with starts in which he rolls out a stretch of marvelous innings – only to be done in by a big one. It’s a main reason he’s got a 7-9 lifetime record vs. Seattle, yet few Mariners enjoy facing him.
He was at his toughest Monday, and still gave up a big inning. For four innings, he was perfect, retiring all 12 batters he faced.
Hernandez, toiling away, couldn’t match that and gave up two runs in the fourth inning, then two more in the fifth to trail, 4-0.
“I’ve seen Millwood off and on for six years, and that’s the best I’ve seen his command,” Wakamatsu said. “He had both sides of the plate. If you took pitches, you fell behind. That’s as good as anyone we’ve faced this year.”
When Millwood took the mound with that lead in the fifth inning, he hadn’t allowed a baserunner. On his fifth pitch that inning, he gave Russell Branyan a fastball the first baseman turned into his seventh homer of the year.
One out later, Jose Lopez singled, Kenji Johjima doubled and Franklin Gutierrez – in danger of losing playing time because of his bat last week – homered to tie the game.
“We came back and tied the game, and I thought I could hold it there,” Hernandez said.
From there, in storybook fashion, Hernandez would overcome his virus and run his season record to 5-0.
The Rangers weren’t in a storybook mood – especially that story. When Felix took the mound with the game tied, he gave up a single to the No. 7 hitter in the lineup, David Murphy.
Worse, he allowed the No. 8 hitter, Davis, to club his sixth home run of the season and put Texas ahead again, 6-4. At the time Davis swung, he was batting .188.
If this wasn’t Hernandez at his sharpest, it was still a pitcher capable of blowing away hitters. He didn’t walk a man, and struck out nine in six innings.
Texas, however, is a team that will happily trade strikeouts for the long ball, and hitting two of them against Hernandez pulled them above .500 (13-12) and to 11/2 games behind the Mariners
“We made him work hard, and that’s what you have to do with Felix,” Texas manager Ron Washington said.
Someone asked what he saw in friend and one-time Rangers coach Wakamatsu.
“Wakamatsu is a fundamentalist,” Washington said. “He’s got them playing good baseball, doing everything I thought the Seattle Mariners would do the past couple of years.
“They’ve got pitching, outfield speed. The infield is as good as it gets. They just look like they’re playing as a team.”
In the ninth inning, the Mariners made one last surge. With two outs – one on an extremely close call at first base – Gutierrez singled and Yuniesky Betancourt drew his first walk of the season – in his 97th plate appearance.
That got the game to Ichiro Suzuki, who swung at a first-pitch strike, just got under it and flied out.
“We had the guy we felt good about up there,” Wakamatsu said. “We just didn’t get it done tonight.”