Felix Hernandez thrives in the type of game he was born for
Mariners’ offensive outburst finally matches brilliance of ace Hernandez
Seattle Times columnist
Toronto @ Mariners, 7:10 p.m.,
It was an electric Felix night, the kind for which he was born to be on the mound. The kind all too infrequent as the Mariners have plodded through his reign with too many wasted seasons.
But this Mariners season is crackling with energy just when the long baseball season gets good. And it’s been a long time since there’s been a better Safeco night than Monday. Or at least, a more meaningful one.
The atmosphere was kinetic, and a little bizarre (in a good way). Kyle Seager had made sure to warn his newer teammates to be prepared for the inevitable Canadian invasion.
“I was trying to tell some of the guys: ‘Don’t necessarily be alarmed,’ ” Seager said with a laugh.
Sure enough, the nearly sold out crowd (41,168) turned the game into a good-natured Battle of the Bands, as the huge contingent of Blue Jays fans dueled with the Mariners faithful for vocal supremacy. Much like the game itself, it was close early, until it wasn’t.
By the time the Mariners had exploded with a barrage of extra-base hits in the sixth — lightning with the bat that was punctuated by a vivid flash of real lightning and booming thunder clap — the Seattle-centric portion of the crowd was high-fiving, chanting “USA! USA!” and partying like it was 2001.
Meanwhile, the sea of Blue Jay blue, a roiling mass of Northern pride early, turned quiet as the game got away from Toronto. Seven runs in the sixth inning meant that Felix Hernandez could coast to his 16th straight game of at least seven innings with two or fewer runs, blissfully free of the usual tension.
Manager Lloyd McClendon had been asked before the game if he expected Felix to rise to the moment in a game rippling with playoff implications. He chuckled and responded, “Above what he’s been doing already? I don’t know if he can get any better, my God.”
And after the Mariners’ 11-1 victory: “He was great. I’m running out of words for Felix.”
Hernandez deserves the stage the Mariners are finally providing him. In past years, he’s had to manufacture his own gravitas, reveling in the large crowds and media attention that greeted him in places like New York (where they’ve been trying to bait him for years into saying he wants to pitch for the Yankees) and Boston. He was, in essence, stealing a sip of their playoff juice
But this was a crowd (half of it, at least) there to see the Mariners make their own playoff run, with Felix at the epicenter.
“It was awesome,’’ Hernandez said. “That was unreal. The crowd was unbelievable.”
There should be more like it. Five teams, at least, are in the race for the second wild-card, and the Mariners follow this series with three at Detroit, which fell into second place behind Kansas City on Monday. Suddenly, that series looms large, as do, potentially, many more on the schedule.
I say, “potentially,’’ because the last time the Mariners were in this situation, in 2007, a stretch-drive that seemed filled with the same exciting possibilities disintegrated into 15 losses in 17 games, beginning on Aug. 25. It can happen — but it’s hard to imagine it happening to a team with Hernandez in full Cy Young mode.
“I think people are excited about what’s happening,’’ McClendon said before the game. “The one thing I caution — I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m going to enjoy the journey. I told our players to enjoy the journey. We’re in it. It’s an exciting time. I like our chances. I like my team. Let’s see what happens. Should be fun.”
It was certainly fun on Monday as the Blue Jays came to town weary from Sunday’s 19-inning marathon in Toronto, followed by a cross-country flight. Hernandez is the last guy you would want to face in that situation, but it was fitting that he took the mound for the symbolic kickoff of the Mariners’ stretch drive.
“He’s the right guy for any situation,’’ Seager said. “To get this one started he is absolutely the right guy.”
Hernandez has earned the right to soak in the adrenaline, to feel the buzz from the inside. He was brilliant as ever, limiting the Jays to just three hits and one run, gaining command as the game progressed. And his teammates made sure it wasn’t another agonizing night of non-support by turning a narrow 2-1 lead into 9-1 with that seven-run outburst in the sixth.
Robinson Cano homered to start the rally, and nearly homered again after the Mariners had batted around. He knows all about these fraught games, having experienced them on a yearly basis in New York. For most of these Mariners, however, it’s all a revelation. They’re finding out, finally, how the other half lives.
“I was talking to Endy (Chavez) before the game – when you play in New York, every day is like this,’’ Cano said. “Especially when you play against New York or Boston. That’s how it felt tonight.”
Mariners fans long have wanted desperately for Hernandez to get these chances in the spotlight, to no longer have his brilliance squandered in late-season games of obscurity and insignificance.
And now that time is here.
About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives his take on the local and national sports scene.