By Larry LaRue The News Tribune
KANSAS CITY — This one was for Mia, a victory Felix Hernandez dedicated to his daughter on her seventh birthday — and Seattle Mariners fans can only wish he had more than two children.
A proud, doting father off the field, Hernandez reminded the Kansas City Royals how good he can be on a mound, pitching Seattle to a 6-1 victory.
The victory was the third in four games here for the Mariners, and played as temperatures spiked at 104 degrees.
“I didn’t think about the heat, I thought about throwing strikes,” Hernandez said. “I didn’t try to pitch to contact, but I tried to keep the ball down and get ground balls.”
That he did, accounting for 13 ground ball outs in eight innings. The man who opened the day leading the majors with 140 strikeouts, Hernandez struck out three Thursday, tying a season low.
That approach kept his pitch count low — 59 pitches through six innings. Hernandez had one tough inning, the eighth, when he pitched around two Royals hits but needed 24 pitches to do it.
Lucas Luetge pitched the ninth to finish it.
“In the bullpen it looked like he was going to go all the way, and then in the eighth he had to throw a lot of pitches,” Luetge said. “He had 89, and 89 pitches in this heat in this park is like throwing 115 in Seattle.”
While their ace went after his eighth win, the Mariners offense broke on top in the second inning and kept adding on — usually when Jesus Montero was at the plate.
Montero had three hits, including a home run, and four RBI, going 10-for-17 in the series.
“That’s why we traded for him,” Hernandez said. “He’s a great hitter and he’s going to get better.”
Montero’s ninth home run led off the second inning, and Michael Saunders and Brendan Ryan drove in runs to give Hernandez a 3-0 lead.
“Each game is important, for me and for the team,” Montero said. “We had a good series, I had a good series. The four RBI today? I felt good because I helped the team win.”
On the day, Montero singled, doubled and homered — missing the cycle by a triple.
“That always happens. I’m too slow,” he said. “Maybe if there was no one in the outfield …”
No one was more impressed with Hernandez than manager Eric Wedge, who has watched his best starting pitcher go 4-0 with a 1.36 earned run average in his past seven starts.
“He got a lot of quick outs today, grounders or pop ups, which got him and us off the field quickly,” Wedge said. “He was strong again, and had late life on all his pitches.
“Pitching to contact, throwing good low strikes on a day like this, that leads to success. Even in the eighth inning, when he got in trouble with one out — he just buried the last two hitters.”
With two men on and only one out, Felix got Alcides Escobar swinging.
“I got two strikes and then got him with a changeup,” Hernandez said.
Next up, Billy Butler. Hernandez jumped ahead of him in the count, too
“I got ahead with fastballs, then got him to ground out on a curve,” Hernandez said.
The man behind the plate in this one, John Jaso, said Hernandez knew exactly what he wanted to do, and adjusted as the Royals had limited success.
“They had a couple of hits in the first and second inning and we got ground ball double plays in both,” Jaso said. “I think they came out trying to hit early in the count, and they were flipping hits over the infield.
“They hit his changeup early, so we went with more fastballs. Later in the game, we came back to the changeup and Felix would throw hard inside, changeup away and they couldn’t hit it.”
Why not let Hernandez throw his third complete game?
“My decision, and this time I didn’t even ask Felix,” Wedge said. “He had to work hard in the eighth, and it was hot out there. I didn’t want to give him another inning, maybe have it affect his next start.”
For the Mariners, this series was an offensive explosion — 31 runs scored in four games. Since the All-Star game, Seattle is 4-3.
Whether that carries over to one of the winning teams in the American League East, Tampa Bay, is another challenge entirely. Perhaps the Mariners next three starters — Hisashi Iwakuma, Jason Vargas and Blake Beavan — should dedicate their games to Mia Hernandez, too.