By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
PITTSBURGH — Jesus Montero didn’t need to spend a lot of words discussing what Felix Hernandez did on the mound Wednesday. Montero didn’t need deliver a dissertation about his game-deciding solo home run off of A.J. Burnett in the seventh inning. And he didn’t need to ponder the odd coincidence that he has hit all three of his home runs this season in games Hernandez started and he was catching.
Nope, Montero summed up the Seattle Mariners’ 2-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park quite succinctly.
“That’s crazy what’s happening,” he said. “He pitches. I hit a homer. He wins. Unbelievable.”
There you have it.
But really Tuesday’s win wasn’t that crazy or unbelievable. When Hernandez (5-2) is on the mound, he makes Seattle an elite level team. On a day when runs would be even more difficult to come by than usual for the offensively challenged Mariners facing the hard-throwing Burnett, Hernandez made sure that two runs would be enough to win the game.
The Mariners’ ace pitched eight innings, giving up just one run on six hits while striking out five and walking only one.
“Felix was outstanding again,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said.
Over his past five starts, Hernandez has been brilliant, pitching 38 innings and allowing just three earned runs for a 0.71 earned run average with 40 strikeouts and three walks.
And Hernandez didn’t even feel like he has best stuff against Pittsburgh.
“It was just OK,” he said. “Not good as normally, but it was good.”
His stuff was good enough to keep the Pirates at bay for eight innings and his performance showed his maturation and growth from thrower to a pitcher — finding ways to win games when your stuff isn’t there.
“I always think like that,” he said. “If you don’t have your best stuff, you have to go out there and fight, and find different ways to get people out.”
It was evident in the first inning.
Hernandez gave up a lead-off double Starling Marte and later an RBI single to Andrew McCutchen. He then walked Garrett Jones to put runners on first and second with one out. But instead of trying to bully past Michael McKenry with a strikeout, Hernandez coaxed a 6-4-3 double play out of him to end the inning that much quicker.
“He just gets a little mad because he doesn’t like that,” Montero said of Hernandez’s first inning. “After that, he got going and everything was fine after that.”
That one run was all the Pirates would get. Hernandez allowed four more hits the rest of the way, but no runner made it to third. The most serious threat came in the fifth when Jordy Mercer doubled down the left-field line to start the inning. But Hernandez got Clint Barmes to pop out and struck out Burnett and Marte, stranding Mercer at second.
“Yeah, the first inning, they got me pretty good,” Hernandez said. “I left a couple of pitches down the middle. I knew it was going to be hard because A.J. is nasty. After the first, I had to get my command back and throw strikes, and that’s what I did.”
With the Pirates stymied by Hernandez, the Mariners tried to find a way to manufacture runs against Burnett. It wasn’t easy.
Seattle’s first run didn’t even come from a hit. Burnett was perfect through three innings until Michael Saunders drew a lead-off walk to start the fourth. Saunders’ ability to steal bases was clearly distracting to Burnett, who uncorked a wild pitch that let Saunders advance to second.
Still rattled, Burnett then walked Jason Bay. The two runners advanced into scoring position on Kendrys Morales’ one-out ground ball to first. With two outs, Burnett uncorked another wild pitch, allowing Saunders to dash home and tie the score.
Seattle broke up Burnett’s no-hit bid an inning later when Endy Chavez hit an infield single. But it was the second hit that Burnett gave up that was the most costly.
In the seventh inning, Montero hit the first pitch he saw from Burnett — a 91-mph fastball — and drove it over the wall right-center for his third home run of the season.
“I was looking for fastball and he left down the middle, and I hit it good,’ Montero said.
It was his third home run of the season — all of them coming in Hernandez starts. Always emotional, Hernandez was more than a little excited to see the ball go over the fence for his catcher.
“Oh my god, I was really happy,” Hernandez said. “He came up big.”
Wedge hopes the home run is something Montero can use to build some consistency going forward.
“It was a big boost and it should be a huge boost,” he said. “It’s not just hitting the ball there (to right-center field), but driving the ball there. The kid’s working hard. He’s so young and he’s learning so much. I think he’s starting to get the point to where he can put a little more energy into his hitting because he has been catching there for a little bit now.”
Given the lead, Hernandez pitched a scoreless bottom of the seventh and eighth inning before giving way to Tom Wilhelmsen, who pitched the ninth to earn his ninth save of the season.
The victory allowed the Mariners finish the short road trip with a 3-2 record and improve to 16-19 on the season.
“Our guys are fighting hard, man,” Wedge said. “You know every pitch could be the ballgame. Those are hard-fought ballgames.”