This time, the Seattle Mariners saved Felix Hernandez.
Hernandez has consistently bailed out the Mariners following losses this season. Coming into Friday’s game, the young right-hander had posted an 11-3 record in 15 starts following a Mariners loss.
But in his 16th start following a loss, it was his teammates’ turn to bail him out. And still it wasn’t easy – the Mariners were down to their last out with a runner on second when Ryan Langerhans crushed two-run walk-off homer to give them a 7-6 win over the Tampa Bay Rays in 11 innings at Safeco Field.
The Mariners erased a 5-1 deficit with a four-run seventh, then went on to force extra innings.
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But it looked like it would be for naught when Jason Bartlett homered to start the 11th inning and give the Rays a 6-5 lead.
It was Langerhans’ first career walkoff homer, and he was mobbed by teammates at home plate after securing the Mariners’ 57th win of the season. Perhaps more impressive, they did it on a night when Hernandez gave them a very un-Hernandez-like outing.
By mere mortal pitching standards, Hernandez was above average, pitching six innings and allowing three earned runs on five hits.
But in comparison to the level Hernandez has pitched at this season, and the even higher level he holds himself to, Friday’s start against the Tampa Bay Rays was a disjointed mess of good stuff, bad control, even worse command and a pitch-draining fight.
Of the six innings, some were bad, some were decent, but few were similar to the dominating, trouble-free innings he has worked on most occasions this season.
Perhaps the best example came in the second inning. After being given a 1-0 lead in the first inning on Russell Branyan’s 25th homer of the season, Hernandez walked three batters and gave up three runs with the help of an Adrian Beltre error, a single to Carl Crawford and a sacrifice fly to Ben Zobrist in the second to turn a one-run lead to a 3-1 deficit.
Three walks in an inning? That isn’t Hernandez. He had yet to do that this season. In fact, Hernandez had just 43 walks in 152 innings pitched coming into the game. And he hadn’t walked more than three hitters in a game until Friday night.
Maybe everything wasn’t completely wrong, but it wasn’t completely right, either.
But as he did the last time his command and location weren’t perfect, Hernandez battled. He didn’t throw a tantrum as he might have in the past, or ask to come out of the game. He stayed in and competed, pitched and fought.
After the three-run second, he allowed just one more run – a monster solo home run by Pat Burrell – in the fifth inning.
But all those pitches and all those walks – a season high six – forced him out of the game in the seventh, perhaps fittingly after back-to-back walks to start the inning.
A 4-1 deficit isn’t impossible to overcome, even for the sometimes offensively challenged Mariners. But early on it felt like the Mariners would never get more than the one run.
For the first six innings, Seattle managed only two hits against Tampa starter Jeff Niemann – with Branyan’s homer being the only hard-hit ball.
Finally, in the seventh, Niemann gave a few back.
Ken Griffey Jr. led off the seventh, crushing the first pitch he saw into the right-field stands for his 12th homer of the season. The crowd of 44,376 – many of whom came to collect the Griffey souvenir bobblehead being given away – gave a lengthy standing ovation.
But the Mariners weren’t done. They rattled off three straight hits, including an RBI single by Rob Johnson. They continued to apply pressure, loading the bases to bring Ichiro Suzuki to the plate. Tampa manager went to lefty side-armer Brian Shouse to shut him down. But the strategy backfired as Ichiro slapped a 1-0 single up the middle to score two runs and tie the game.
The two teams never really threatened in the eighth, ninth or tenth innings, until the dramatic eleventh.
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