By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
SEATTLE — Let’s just say it’s about time Fortune smiled at Felix Hernandez. Not that this balances the scales, but a dropped pop Tuesday by Atlanta second baseman Tommy La Stella was a nice down payment.
That dropped pop, off the bat of Chris Taylor, came with two outs and runners at second and third in the fourth inning of a tied game. Both runners scored. An Austin Jackson single added another run.
Hernandez took it from there in pitching the Mariners to a 4-2 victory at Safeco Field.
“That’s what you’re supposed to do,” said Kyle Seager, who started the four-run inning when hit by a pitch. “When you get an opportunity, you take advantage. … Four runs with Felix going is a good combination.”
A rare one, too. The Mariners had not scored more than three runs in any of Hernandez’s previous six starts.
“It was fun to pitch with a three-run lead,” he said. “The first two innings, I felt a little rusty. I didn’t play catch last night because it was a day off. After that, I settled in.”
Hernandez (12-3) yielded one run and four hits in extending his major league-record streak to 15 consecutive starts of pitching at least seven innings and allowing two or fewer runs.
Manager Lloyd McClendon pulled Hernandez after eight innings, even though his ace had thrown just 97 pitches and had retired 16 of the previous 17 hitters.
“I’ll continue to protect my pitchers,” McClendon said. “I’m trying to play meaningful games in September, not have a pitcher throw a complete game in (early) August.
“My objective is to try to get this team as far as I can. Hopefully, that’s the playoffs. I don’t know if we can get there or not. But I want Felix healthy, strong and moving forward in September.”
Hernandez said he didn’t mind the hook.
“I was strong,” he said, “but (McClendon) said, ‘Good job.’ … We’ve got (Fernando) Rodney. We’ve got one of the best closers.”
Rodney gave up one run in the ninth inning before securing his 31st save. Atlanta starter Alex Wood (7-9) got the loss despite giving up just one earned run in six innings.
The victory enabled the Mariners (58-54) to move to within one game of Toronto in the battle for the American League’s final wild-card berth. Hernandez’s next start will be Monday against those Blue Jays.
Atlanta opened the scoring when Justin Upton started the second inning with a drive to left that hopped the wall for a double. Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis struck out, but Chris Johnson looped a single to left.
Dustin Ackley appeared to have a play at the plate but bobbled the ball. The Braves led 1-0, and Hernandez vowed later his failure to play catch the day before a start is something that’s “not going to happen again.”
The Mariners’ decisive fourth began when Kendrys Morales just missed a homer to left when the ball hooked foul. He then grounded out, but Wood hit Seager in the back with a pitch.
Seager went to second when Chris Denorfia drove a single up the middle for his first hit as a Mariner. Logan Morrison tied the score by beating the shift with grounder through the left side for an RBI single.
Atlanta shortstop Andrelton Simmons clipped his heel on third base when he went to cover, came up limping with a sprained left ankle and left the game.
The Braves kept the infield back with one out and runners at second and third, but it didn’t matter when Mike Zunino swung through a full-count pitch out of the strike zone.
Wood should have been out of the inning when Taylor lofted a pop into short right field, but La Stella, retreating from second, dropped the ball for a two-run error.
“Off the bat,” Taylor said, “I was frustrated. I thought I was right on it. I just got underneath it. I knew there were guys on so, obviously, I wanted to get a hit. Luckily, he dropped it.”
The Mariners led 3-1.
“It’s just one of those things,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, whose club has lost seven in a row. “It’s a physical error, and you can’t do anything about it. … Sometimes, it’s just the way stuff’s going.”
Jackson’s single pushed the lead to 4-1.
Taylor punctuated his night with a web gem for the final out in the eighth inning. He made a diving stop to his right on a grounder, bounced to his feet and threw out speedy Emilio Bonifacio at first.
That prompted an exuberant thank-you hand slap from Hernandez as the Mariners returned to their dugout.
“The way Felix was throwing,” Taylor said, “he was having a great game, and … He’s picked us up so many times, so to be able to pick him up on that play was awesome.”
So is a bit of good fortune.