By Christian Caple The News Tribune
SEATTLE — Lloyd McClendon saw it in the first inning.
Felix Hernandez might be the best pitcher in Major League Baseball, so courage would not have been required to predict that he might dominate the Cleveland Indians on Sunday at Safeco Field. He nearly always does.
But what McClendon, the Mariners’ manager, and the rest of the 26,171 at Safeco Field saw from Seattle’s ace was even more remarkable than usual. And McClendon sensed it early in this 3-0 Seattle victory.
“He threw a couple breaking balls that were really sharp,” McClendon said. “Fastball was 93, 94, touched 95. I thought it was going to be a good day for him.”
It was better than good. Hernandez was darn near unhittable, allowing only a non-descript single to Lonnie Chisenhall in the fifth inning, striking out nine batters and walking three in an eight-inning performance that will rank among his best. Behind the perfect game he threw against Tampa Bay in 2012. And the one-hitter he threw at Fenway Park in 2007.
The only possible knock on this gem was that he didn’t get to finish it. Fernando Rodney came in and tossed a 1-2-3 ninth for his 23rd save. McClendon said he would have let Hernandez go the distance had he been working on a no-hitter.
But as it was, Hernandez said, after 107 pitches that danced and zipped and frequently eluded the Indians’ bats, “that was good enough.”
“The boss says ‘That’s it,’ that’s it,” Hernandez said.
The victory improved Hernandez’s record to 10-2 and lowered his ERA to 2.10, and, hey, pick another stat or two to gawk at, because there are options. He has pitched at least seven innings and allowed two or fewer runs in nine consecutive starts, a franchise record. He’s now 4-0 with a 1.21 ERA in six career starts against the Indians at Safeco. His nine strikeouts Sunday moved his career total to 1,840. Just five pitchers in MLB history struck out more batters before their 29th birthday.
“I don’t have the adjectives to explain it anymore,” McClendon said. “He’s just unbelievable.”
And on Sunday, he was different. Mariners catcher Mike Zunino said he often called for changeups and breaking balls early in the count instead of later, and Hernandez often threw fastballs with two strikes. The Indians, caught looking at five third strikes, seemed baffled by this.
“It’s just tough (on the hitters) when you’ve got four pitches guys have to respect,” Zunino said. “(They’re) not always going to pick right, so he’s doing a good job mixing it up and then making the pitch too.”
Hernandez said he was most pleased with his fastball, describing his command of that pitch as “really good.”
“I think they were sitting on my changeup,” he said. “We struck out a lot of people with the fastball.”
But even Felix can’t win these games by himself, and unlike Saturday night’s loss, the Mariners actually scored. Robinson Cano made sure of that, belting a two-run home run into the right-field bleachers on a 2-0 pitch from Indians starter T.J. House with nobody out in the sixth inning.
Cano said he was just trying to hit the ball out of the infield, with Michael Saunders on third base after he led off the inning with a bunt single and took second and third base on House’s throwing error.
“You just want to be able to do your job,” Cano said, “especially when we’ve got men in scoring position.”
Zunino added an RBI single in the eighth inning, scoring Cano from third base after he had reached on an infield single and taken two bases on a single by Kyle Seager.
Those contributions, combined with Hernandez’s brilliance, likely made for a more enjoyable flight to Houston, where the Mariners (44-38) begin a three-game series today.
Indians manager Terry Francona might still be marveling at what he saw from Hernandez.
“He had everything working,” Francona said. “It’s hard to get a beat on him. He commands his fastball, he spins a breaking ball, he throws a changeup often, both of those, and he locates all of them. That’s tough. I mean, he’s not only been good today, he goes out there for about eight innings every start.”
Well, he averages about seven. But on this day, hyperbole can be forgiven.