SEATTLE—Everything thrown by Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez was up much more than he wanted.
Even the one slider he got down in the zone Friday night wound up being up anyway—as in up, up and away for a game-changing home run by Oakland Athletics catcher George Kottaras in the fourth inning. It was that kind of night for Hernandez, who took a 6-1 loss to the Athletics in one of those rare outings in which he failed to make it out of the fifth inning.
While not ruining his Cy Young Award hopes by any stretch, the unexpected pounding leaves Hernandez in a virtual dead heat statistically with fellow front-runner Justin Verlander of the Tigers in most big categories.
“Every pitch was up,” Hernandez said. “I fell behind a lot of times, and they made me pay.”
The crowd of 17,128 at Safeco Field looked on in stunned silence as Kottaras golfed Hernandez’s slider high and well beyond the right-field wall for a three-run homer that made it 4-1. One inning later, with Hernandez desperately trying to escape the fifth, the A’s pounded four consecutive hits off him.
The last two of those were a run-scoring double by Josh Donaldson and a single by Stephen Drew that brought the sixth Oakland run home and ended Hernandez’s night on 96 pitches. It was the worst beating administered to Hernandez since he got tagged for eight runs—six earned—in just 3-2/3 innings at Cleveland back on May 16.
In that game, just like here, Hernandez kept giving up hits as he sought the final out that would enable him to escape the frame. Of the six runs he gave up in this one, five were earned, sending his earned-run average from 2.51 up to 2.67.
He and Verlander now sport identical 13-7 records, with Hernandez leading in ERA by a slim 2.67 to 2.71. They had been nearly identically matched in innings totals — 204-1/3 to 204 in Verlander’s favor—before this game, but Hernandez has now thrown one more outing, which means Verlander can increase his innings lead with a strong showing his next start.
The starter who outpitched Hernandez in this game, A’s rookie A.J. Griffin, became the first Oakland rookie in 24 years to start his career 5-0. Griffin scattered six hits, struck out seven and walked only one, giving up his lone run in the fourth inning that left the game tied 1-1.
But Hernandez just couldn’t get anything going momentum-wise.
“I was trying everything out there,” Hernandez said. “But nothing worked. I was opening up too much, I fell behind, I was leaving pitches up. That’s why I gave up six runs.”
Mariners catcher John Jaso noted that some of the early hits off Hernandez were more of the blooped variety. That was especially true on the game’s first run in the first inning, when Yoenis Cespedes floated a ball in front of right fielder Eric Thames, who seemed caught off-guard when the ball took a back-spinned hop and scooted on by him for an error.
Seth Smith scored all the way from first base on the play for a 1-0 lead.
“They got a couple of blooped hits and got some momentum going,” Jaso said. “The game kind of went their way after that.”
Jaso said Hernandez’s curveball and off-speed pitches in general were off, but still better than average.
“The A’s are a hot team,” Jaso said. “Once they get a little momentum going, it’s pretty tough to battle them. I think some of those bloop hits were pretty costly.”
The slider to Kottaras “was the right pitch, right location” and just ran into the barrel of Kottaras’ bat. But the problem, Jaso, added, is that there were already two men on base, so the damage was much, much worse.
The homer seemed to come out of nowhere, since Kottaras has only three on the season. But it dealt a gut-punch to the Mariners, who did little on offense the rest of the way.
Luis Jimenez hit a two-out single in the bottom of the fourth for his first big-league hit, as his mother and father—visiting from Venezuela—sat watching in the stands. Thames had already singled ahead of him, so there were two on and two out, but then Griffin fanned Brendan Ryan to end the last real chance Seattle had to get back in it.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge worked a bunch of his bullpen arms in after that as Oliver Perez extended his scoreless streak to 18 outings with 1-1/3 frames of one-hit ball.
Erasmo Ramirez worked a perfect seventh and Hector Noesi escaped an eighth-inning jam, then tossed a scoreless ninth as well. But the game was pretty much over after Hernandez took the early knockout blow.
“He was just a little bit off,” Wedge said. “When they got to him, usually the pitch was up and over the plate. It was just one of those days for Felix. He’d been so good for so long.”
And now, he’ll have to be that way again after giving Cy Young rival Verlander an opening he’d needed.