By John Boyle Herald Writer
SEATTLE — As Felix Hernandez walked off the Safeco Field mound to a huge ovation, he tipped his cap to the 39,206 fans, many of whom were there to celebrate the pitcher who threw a perfect game in his last start.
This time around, the ovation was more in appreciation for who Hernandez is and what he means to a city than it was for a dominant performance — though he was still pretty darn good Tuesday leading the Mariners to a 5-1 victory over the Cleveland Indians. This night, this huge crowd for a weeknight game featuring two teams with losing records, was a taste of what playoff baseball feels like in a city that hasn’t seen the postseason in more than a decade.
The standing ovation Hernandez received was not his first on the night. When he went to the bullpen to warm up before the game, he was greeted with cheers, then he received a huge ovation when he came back from the bullpen to the dugout just before the start of the game.
“I got chills,” said Hernandez, who allowed one run in 72⁄3 innings of work. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is unbelievable.’ It’s pretty amazing. This is something special. I really appreciate the Seattle Mariners, I really appreciate these fans. They support me every year.”
The Mariners honored Hernandez by turning Safeco into the “Supreme Court,” an extension of the usual “King’s Court” section in left field. Instead of a couple of sections of raucous, yellow-clad fans, the entire stadium was dressed in yellow T-shirts, waving K cards as they watched the Mariners win their seventh straight game.
And what was perhaps most amazing about Hernandez’s performance is just how routine it felt seeing him pitch into the eighth inning while striking out five and allowing a single run. That’s just how good Hernandez has been this year, and particularly of late.
Even so, what Hernandez accomplished Tuesday was no small feat. Baseball history is full of pitchers who have struggled coming off of a perfect game, and while Hernandez wasn’t quite as dominant as he has been in several recent outings, he was still plenty good.
“It was electric out there tonight,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “A lot of emotion, especially for Felix. One of my concerns was just how he was going to handle all of that, just because of everything that led up to this game, the emotion before the game, him coming from the bullpen, going out on the field, everything. To no one’s surprise, he handled it beautifully.”
Any hopes for a repeat of last week’s historic performance evaporated quickly when Jason Kipnis led off the game with a single that was just out of the reach of a diving Justin Smoak. Hernandez said he wasn’t bothered to give up a hit so early after being perfect five days earlier.
“No feelings,” he said. “Trying to get a ground ball and double play, you know?”
Cleveland managed three singles off Hernandez in the early going before he retired 11 in a row. But even though Hernandez was cruising, it was another Hernandez, Cleveland’s Roberto Hernandez, who was flirting with a no-hitter. Roberto Hernandez, formerly known as Fausto Carmona, no-hit the Mariners through 42⁄3 innings before Eric Thames broke the scoreless tie with a solo home run to right field.
The Indians finally got to Seattle’s Hernandez in the seventh, scoring the tying run on a Casey Kotchman single that, if not for a bad hop over Brendan Ryan’s glove, would have likely been an inning-ending double play. The damage might have been worse, but the Brent Lillibridge, a Jackson High graduate, couldn’t get a squeeze bunt down with Michael Brantley breaking for home. After Brantley was tagged out in a run down for the second out, Lillibridge struck out to end the inning.
In the bottom of the seventh, the Mariners blew the game open to make sure Hernandez would earn his 12th victory of the season.
After John Jason drove in Michael Saunders for the go-ahead run with a ground-rule double, Jesus Montero gave the Mariners plenty of breathing room when he sat on a slider from reliever Esmil Rodgers and crushed it 438-feet off the facade of the upper deck in left-center. The ball got out so quickly that it even surprised the man who hit it.
“I was surprised, because the ball took off so quick,” Montero said. “I was like, ‘Where’s the ball?’ And the ball was in the stands. It was crazy.”
And with that home run, Montero helped make sure a memorable night at Safeco Field would end in victory for the Mariners and their ace.
“Felix, he’s special,” Montero said. “He’s King Felix, that’s why he brings so many people to the stadium. The best part is that we won tonight.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.