By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
OAKLAND, Calif. — It all almost got away from Felix Hernandez and the Mariners on one ninth-inning pitch Saturday afternoon when Yoenis Cespedes sent a drive to deep left field.
For an instant, a magnificent performance, and a victory, swayed in the balance before the ball hooked foul. Instead of a tie score, Hernandez and the M’s still held a 3-1 lead over the Oakland A’s.
“I knew, off the bat, it was pretty fair from where I was,” left fielder Dustin Ackley said. “I’m glad that thing hooked like it did. Right off the bat, I was expecting it to be a homer.”
Hernandez admitted, “It scared me a little bit, but it was foul.”
Thus reprieved, Hernandez retired Cespedes on a fly to right before new closer Fernando Rodney closed out the victory with a pair of strikeouts for a save.
And just like that, the Mariners, at 4-1, guaranteed themselves of winning road trip to start the season with just today’s series finale at again-playable O.co Coliseum remaining prior to Tuesday’s home opener.
That late drama aside, Hernandez was in top form in improving to 2-0. He carried a four-hit shutout into the ninth inning that included eight strikeouts and just one walk.
“I’d say for seven innings that might be the best we’ve seen him,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “It seemed like his fastball had a little extra hop, and he mixed in his breaking stuff well.”
That’s saying something.
Hernandez is unbeaten in his past 10 starts at the O-no, which recovered nicely overnight from the swampy mess that forced a postponement Friday after the Coliseum crew left the infield uncovered during a rainstorm.
“Today, I felt strong, felt really good,” Hernandez said. “Every pitch was right there. It’s fun when you can throw everything for strikes.”
Oakland starter Dan Straily, 0-1, kept pace by striking out seven in the first four innings, but the Mariners stuck for three runs in the fifth on homers by Ackley and Abraham Almonte.
“At that point,” Ackley said, “I think we were thinking, `Just get one.’ Getting on the board first is really important. It puts the pressure on those guys to do something against Felix. It makes him even tougher.”
The three-run burst followed Hernandez’s best moment — an escape from a second-and-third jam in the fourth inning that he didn’t deserve.
After retiring the first 11 A’s, Hernandez yielded a two-out single to Jed Lowrie on a grounder up the middle. Even so, he should have been out of the inning when Brandon Moss sent a high fly to short center.
Instead, the ball fell for a gift double between Ackley coming over from left, Almonte coming in from center and Brad Miller retreating from short. Lowrie stopped at third.
The miscue energized the crowd of 30,290, but Hernandez struck out Cespedes on three pitches. The Mariners then flexed their muscle in the fifth.
Kyle Seager led off with a double over Cespedes’ head in left. After Logan Morrison fouled out, Seager moved to third on a wild pitch. Ackley followed by turning on an 88-mph fastball and sending it over the right-field wall.
“I think everybody just saw (Straily) a couple of times,” Ackley said. “Once you see a guy you haven’t seen before, you get used to what he’s got and you throw out some better at-bats.”
The Mariners weren’t done.
Straily retired Mike Zunino on a fly to deep left, but Almonte, who struck out in his two previous at-bats, followed with a no-doubt drive to right for another homer and a 3-0 lead.
“In the earlier at-bats,” he said, “I was (late on the ball). In that at-bat, I started (my swing) a little bit early so I could get my hands in front.”
Hernandez took it from there. He breezed through the seventh and survived some loud outs in the eighth before things got interesting in the ninth.
Lowrie led off with a line-drive homer to right.
When Moss followed with a sharp single into center, manager Lloyd McClendon headed to the mound. With Rodney warming up, McClendon stayed with Hernandez in the game to face Cespedes.
“I just told (Hernandez) this was his last hitter,” McClendon said, “and to make sure he made good pitches. Then I was turning it over to Rodney.”
It all worked out.