Felix Hernandez gets to take one last bow in a great season
Lloyd McClendon gave Felix Hernandez a parting gift Sunday, once it became apparent that his outing, typically brilliant, had become superfluous. The gift was adulation. A chance for Mariners fans to salute Hernandez one final time for his wondrous season.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Felix by the numbers
15 Wins this season, second highest total of his career. Hernandez won 19 in 2009.
248 Strikeouts this season, a career high.
2.14 ERA this season, lowest in the AL.
Lloyd McClendon gave Felix Hernandez a parting gift Sunday, once it became apparent that his outing, typically brilliant, had become superfluous.
The gift was adulation. A chance for Mariners fans, deflated by the knowledge there would be no miracles on Sunday, to salute Hernandez one final time for his wondrous season.
The Oakland A’s had just won in Texas, an outcome that caused Hernandez to bow his head in the dugout in the bottom of the fifth inning. The Mariners’ playoff hopes, extended well beyond expectations — both of those heading into the season, and heading into the weekend — officially expired.
So McClendon told Hernandez he was going to let him pitch to one batter in the sixth and then take him out so he could bathe in an ovation from the near sellout crowd at Safeco Field. First, McClendon told Hernandez, jokingly, that the trainer would come out to get him.
“Hell, no. You’re not going to bring the trainer out,’’ Hernandez retorted.
Of course, it was McClendon himself who went out with the hook after Hernandez had retired C.J. Cron on a groundout to start the sixth. The Mariners led the Angels 4-0 and Hernandez was pitching as well as he had all season — just one hit allowed, a broken-bat single by Albert Pujols, with seven strikeouts.
“I’m surprised he gave me a hug,’’ McClendon said. “I thought he’d probably hit me.”
Hernandez hugged each of his infielders, one at a time, before giving a longer embrace to McClendon and then catcher Mike Zunino. Hernandez walked off to maybe the loudest cheer all season at Safeco Field, waving to the crowd, then bowing, then coming out for a curtain call.
Hernandez’s eyes seemed to be moistening. Tears?
“No, no, I was just…’’ he protested, then stopped and offered a wan smile. “Kinda. It didn’t come out. Pretty close.”
Just like it was oh so close for the Mariners, who finished one game out of a playoff spot despite their eventual 4-1 victory. And so it was impossible Sunday not to look back at all the games that got away. That includes Hernandez’s lopsided defeat in his previous start in Toronto, the one discordant note in what likely will be a second Cy Young season.
“I disappointed my teammates last time against Toronto,’’ he said. “Today, I was of a different mind.”
That was evident to teammates Saturday night, when the dynamics for Sunday were established by the Mariners’ walkoff win and Oakland’s loss. Amid the joking and celebrating in the clubhouse, a stern-faced Felix exited quickly.
“We were talking about it this morning, actually,’’ Michael Saunders said. “We had a really good feeling about what was going to happen. Superstars rise to the occasion. He’s arguably the best pitcher in the game. He proved it out there today.”
Hernandez would say afterward his stuff was as good as it has been all season. And McClendon would say afterward that Hernandez wasn’t at full strength, though the manager was vague about his specific malady, other than the fatigue of a 230-inning season.
“Felix is a hell of a competitor,’’ McClendon said. “There was no talking him out of not starting this game. He really didn’t want to come out in the sixth. I just said: ‘The hell with it. I’m going to get him.’ ”
To which Hernandez said, “If Oakland had lost, I was not going to come out of the game.”
But the A’s won, at which point the focus of the afternoon turned, instantly, from driving toward a playoff berth to ceremonial tributes. One out after removing Hernandez, McClendon pulled Robinson Cano, too, to give him his moment in the sun.
“I just thought our fans should have an opportunity to thank them for the tremendous years both of them had,’’ McClendon said.
Hernandez won the American League ERA title (2.14), established a career best with 248 strikeouts and racked up his 15th victory — well short of where he would have been with decent run support.
But Hernandez didn’t want Toronto to be the prevailing memory of this season. If the Mariners were going to sneak into the postseason, he wanted it to be on his back. And he was dominant, striking out seven through three innings. He had no-hit stuff, but there was no need to flaunt it anymore once Seattle became the last team in baseball to be eliminated.
“All my starts, I’m trying to give 100 percent,’’ he said, “but today was more fun. I was trying to go out and do my thing. It was good. You saw my face when I was pitching today. I was like, ‘This is it.’ This is my game.”
It was Hernandez’s game, but one too few for the Mariners — a lesson learned.
“You hear people say all the time, it comes down to one game sometimes,’’ Zunino said. “You don’t believe it until it actually happens. This gives a lesson to everybody. It’s definitely something we’re going to keep in mind next year. Every game, no matter how small it seems, is going to affect the long run.”
Hernandez said he will work even harder this offseason, to see if he can find a way to coax the one win that got away — or more.
“Next year is going to be fun, too,’’ he said.
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