BOSTON – For about two innings, victory seemed possible, if not plausible. The Mariners delivered a four-run punch to Boston starter Rick Porcello in the top of the first and figured to get more over the next eight innings, while Seattle starter Felix Hernandez put up an easy 1-2-3 first inning and worked his way out of what could have been a calamitous second inning.
But this isn’t the same Boston team the Mariners faced early in the season. That version of the Red Sox was a disjointed mess that seemed to have skipped spring training due to an incurable World Series hangover. This current version of the Red Sox is starting to resemble the run-scoring juggernaut of 2018.
Well, his escape act ended in disaster in an eight-run third, and there was no response from for an offense that would only muster one more run the rest of the game.
A day after falling under .500 for the first time this season, Seattle dropped another game below Saturday in a forgettable 9-5 loss at Fenway Park.
“Not the way we drew it up, pitching-wise,” acting manager Manny Acta said. “We gave Felix a little bit of cushion, and we felt like it would buy us some time. Unfortunately, he couldn’t stop them.”
To be fair, the Red Sox offense is rolling. Boston has scored 89 runs and bashed 22 homers in its past 12 games, averaging 7.4 runs per game.
“They just grind out at-bats against all of our pitchers,” Acta said. “It took us 130-something pitches just to get through five innings.”
It was the Mariners’ third straight defeat and seventh loss in nine games of the 10-game road trip. There is no salvaging this mess with a win on Sunday, but Marco Gonzales will try to stop the losing and return some dignity to a team trending toward mediocrity at rate faster than Hernandez’s waning fastball.
There was a time when Hernandez would put a stop to Seattle’s losing streaks and poor play, tossing out a dominant start that would allow even the worst Seattle teams to earn a victory. He was that good.
But he’s no longer that pitcher. The aura of King Felix is gone. On Saturday, he looked like an average pitcher just trying to survive against an offense he knew couldn’t stop, or even slow down. The coaching staff knew it was a possibility, based on his warmups in the bullpen.
“He didn’t warm up very well,” Acta said. “Our pitching coaches were worried about that. They didn’t feel like the ball was coming out hot out of his hand. We’ve seen that before in the past and the guy will come out and pitch well and vice versa, where sometimes guys throw the heck out of it in the bullpen and then get lit up.”
Hernandez hoped he could find a way when he entered the game.
“It was just one of those days that you don’t feel that well,” he said.
His teammates gave him a 4-0 lead in the first. Daniel Vogelbach and Domingo Santana swatted run-scoring doubles with two outs and Jay Bruce whacked his 12th homer of the season – a two-run shot to right field.
Hernandez worked a 1-2-3 first inning, previously a hint that he might have a productive outing. He hoped he could replicate it and get through at least five. But his lack of command became evident, and the Red Sox went into grind mode.
Mitch Moreland led off the second with a solo homer. After a walk by Xander Bogaerts and a single from Rafael Devers, Hernandez found himself facing runners on the corners and nobody out. He responded by striking out Michael Chavis and Jackie Bradley Jr. and getting Sandy Leon to pop out, ending the inning and limiting the damage.
An emotionally engaged Hernandez let out a yell and stalked to the visitors’ dugout in celebration.
His next walk to the dugout would be a head-down trudge, the only emotion being disgust.
After getting Andrew Benintendi to line out sharply to start the third, Hernandez wouldn’t record another out against the next six batters he faced: Mookie Betts, walk; J.D. Martinez, sharp single to left; Moreland, slicing single to center to load the bases; Bogaerts, RBI single to left; Devers, two-run single to center; and Chavis, walk.
The 4-0 lead was gone. Hernandez had no shown signs of executing well enough to slow down the Red Sox while throwing 40 pitches in the inning.
Acta went to the bullpen, bringing in lefty Roenis Elias to try and keep the game competitive. Elias rewarded Acta by promptly giving up a two-run single to Bradley, with both runs charged to Hernandez, then serving up a two-run homer to Sandy Leon.
“We hoped Felix could keep us in the game for at least four innings,” Acta said. “We went to Elias because he was well-rested and the game was still there, but it got out of hand there.”
The inning finally came to a close when Benintendi made his second out in the frame and rookie Shed Long, playing in his first major league game, made a nice diving stop and throw to first to get Betts. Eleven batters came to the plate in the inning, six got hits and eight runs were scored. The 4-1 lead was now a 9-4 deficit.
Hernandez’s official line was 2 1/3 innings pitched, six runs allowed on seven hits, with three walks and three strikeouts. It was his worst outing since dizziness from food poisoning forced him out of the first inning of his start on April 8 vs. the Royals. His command was nonexistent, the results unsurprising.
After providing some hope of an improved 2019 season with a stretch of four outings that ranged from decent to solid to outstanding, Hernandez has had back-to-back clunkers. Like his team, that stretch may have provided renewed and unrealistic expectations. This is who he is as a pitcher. He no longer has the stuff to dominate consistently.
Even with the idea of pitching backward and using his curveball as a primary weapon, he still has to locate that pitch, as well as his fastball and changeup. Teams have already recognized his new plan. So it comes down to command, and being able to put the ball where he wants to. He hasn’t done it the past two games, and he’s been hit hard.
“Walks, walks get me in trouble,” Hernandez said. “If I don’t get ahead of hitters, I get in trouble. I couldn’t throw a strike with my curveball.”
Hernandez reached a milestone in the second inning with career strikeout No. 2,500. He’s the sixth-youngest pitcher to reach 2,500 strikeouts, at 33 years and 33 days. The five pitchers ahead of him are Nolan Ryan (31 years, 101 days), Walter Johnson (31 years,197 days), Pedro Martinez (32 years, 221 days), Tom Seaver (33 years, 287 days) and Bert Blyleven (33 years). All are in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“It means a lot to be a part of the elite pitchers,” he said. “Hopefully, I can play a few more years and get to 3,000.”
As for the offense, which showed some promise in the first, it dissipated after the third-inning debacle. Porcello remedied his first-inning issues – an eight-run inning of support can fix many things – and worked six innings, not allowing a run over his final five to improve to 3-3 on the season.
Omar Narvaez broke an eight-inning scoreless drought with a solo homer to right in the ninth.
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