SEATTLE – The final start of 2018 for Felix Hernandez had all the familiar feelings of his season as a whole – mixed emotions as varied as his results.
There was the continued frustration from the wandering command that can’t seem to be fixed despite routine changes, workout adjustments and throwing program modifications.
There was lament from home runs and hard hits, a product of that lack of command on pitches that leaked into prime hitting zones.
There was a flicker of hope – retiring six straight batters, including striking out the side in the third inning – that Hernandez still has something more to give to a franchise he’s already given his entire career to without tasting the postseason.
There was nostalgia when he exited the game in the fifth inning, having just allowed the go-ahead run to score aided largely by his own throwing error on a routine comebacker earlier in the inning. The announced crowd of 13,727 rose to give Hernandez a standing ovation, not so much for his performance on the night, but for all the ones that were wasted on mediocre teams in lost seasons.
There was also little else to cheer about on a chilly Wednesday night at Safeco Field. The A’s rolled up six runs in that fifth inning, including Matt Olson’s grand slam off of reliever Chasen Bradford to turn a tie game into a 9-3 rout.
But really there is no bigger feeling surrounding Hernandez than uncertainty.
Will these failures and pending free agency after next season provide motivation this offseason?
What will his role be in 2019?
Can he be something more viable and valuable than what he was this season?
Look past his tattooed bravado and the familiar impish grin and you’ll see that even he feels that uncertainty. He doesn’t know how or why it went so wrong. He’s not certain how to fix it. And now there’s hint of building doubt within if he can find even a portion of what was lost.
He’s owed $27.5 million for the 2019 season – the final guaranteed year on the seven-year contract extension he signed in February of 2013. The money owed and his below-average results make him largely untradable. The Mariners must try and salvage something in this final year.
They aren’t asking him to be King Felix. They know that is a bygone era now joining the too-often-referenced 1995 and 2001 seasons. They just need a productive pitcher to keep them in games. It’s not an impossible task. It will take humility, work and acceptance to realize he’s something that he’s never been before – ordinary.
His rapid decline from a runner-up to the American League Cy Young award in 2015 to his current status – a pitcher with a plus-5 ERA and double digit losses – has been a cruel crisis of his baseball mortality.
Two years ago, they asked Hernandez to focus on his conditioning and his mindset on the mound.
Going into last offseason, the goal was more flexibility and refined mechanics.
This offseason? Well, that’s on him. There is a level of stoicism that permeates. The organization can see the end of a financial and contractual commitment that isn’t crippling but limiting. They’ve asked, suggested and prodded. But nothing has yielded a complete commitment to change or tangible results. It’s one more season – his free-agent season. If he wants to continue pitch beyond 2019, well, there is going to need to be breakthrough in approach and execution.
Hernandez’s 28th start of the season came after a minor hamstring issue had kept him out of games since Sept. 8. While shutting it down for the season might have been a simpler solution for some, Hernandez wanted one more outing at Safeco Field in hopes of finishing strong and continuing to work on a mechanical changes to take into the offseason.
With a King’s Court numbering in the 20s, Hernandez allowed a solo homer in each of the first two innings.
After fouling off four straight pitches, Marcus Semien got a fastball he could handle, driving it over the wall in dead center for a 1-0 lead.
With two outs in what ended up being a 26-pitch second inning, Hernandez left a 2-1 sinker over the middle of the plate that Chad Pinder also drove over the wall in center.
Perhaps buoyed by Ben Gamel’s two-run double to tie the game at 2-2 in the bottom of the second inning, Hernandez came out in the third and struck out Semien, Jed Lowrie and Khris Davis in order to end the inning. It even elicited a scream of emotion that has been quieted for much of the season.
Hernandez worked a smooth 1-2-3 fourth and seemed to have found a rhythm.
But his outing fell apart in the fifth. He hit Mark Canha with a pitch to start the inning. A comebacker to him off the bat of Josh Phegley should have been at least an out at second and possibly a double play. Instead, Hernandez fired it well wide of Jean Segura, who was covering for an error, allowing Canha to reach third. Nick Martini then hit a ground ball through the right side to give Oakland a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
On a limited pitch count, Hernandez was removed from the game after the Martini single. His replacement, Bradford, struggled. Giving up a RBI single to Semien. With two outs and first base open, the Mariners decided to walk Davis, who came into the game with a MLB-leading 46 homers. The move seemed logical. But Olson made it backfire, smashing a grand slam to push the lead to 8-2.
Hernandez was credited with only four innings pitched, five runs allowed (four earned) on three hits with two walks and four strikeouts.
Bradford never made it out of the fifth, getting two outs, but allowing three earned runs on three hits. Nick Rumbelow finished the inning.
The Mariners’ offense mustered just five hits on the night. They had plenty of base runners, aided by six walks from the A’s. But going for 1 for 8 in scoring position led to eight stranded runners on base.
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