By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — Know that eternal axiom about how it’s better to be lucky than good? Know what’s even better? Both. Lucky and good.
The Mariners validated those dual benefits Sunday with a 5-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field.
For seven innings, their ace, Felix Hernandez, was magnificent in racking up a career-high 15 strikeouts and yielding just four hits. That wasn’t good enough, though, because Rays starter Chris Archer matched Hernandez zero for zero on the scoreboard.
The Mariners struck for five runs in the ninth inning against Rays closer Grant Balfour, all with two outs, and the key blow was a seeing-eye, just-try-to-stay-alive grounder by Endy Chavez that found a hole.
“In that situation,” Chavez said, “he jumped on me for two strikes in a row. I saw the (third) one was pretty close, and I thought, ‘I can not let that go through.’
“I was just doing whatever I can to put the ball in play, and I did.”
Luck. Unless you’ve got a better word for it.
OK, let’s reset.
It was 0-0, primarily because of Hernandez and Archer, when Balfour opened the ninth inning by striking out two hitters and was ahead 0-2 on Brad Miller when everything began falling the Mariners’ way.
Miller pulled a ball past first base that rattled into the corner for a triple.
“The first two (pitches) were invisible,” Miller said. “I didn’t see them at all. They were getting on me a little bit. I was just fighting to stay alive.”
After Willie Bloomquist worked a walk, by refusing to bite on a few borderline pitches, Balfour jumped ahead 0-2 on Chavez and tried to get him to chase a pitch off the outside of the plate.
Chavez chased and, with his backside pulling in the opposite direction, somehow put wood on the ball and sent a routine grounder to the left side just beyond the diving reach of shortstop Yunel Escobar for an RBI single
“I was watching it the whole way,” Chavez said, “and I thought (Escobar) might get it and throw over to first. When I saw it go through, I started celebrating.”
That was just the start.
Balfour jumped ahead 0-2 on James Jones, who pulled a liner into right field for what should have been the third out, but rookie Kevin Kiermaier charged in on the ball before frantically retreating as it went over his head.
“I started smiling a little bit,” Jones said. “That definitely helped a lot.”
The result was a two-run triple.
After Balfour walked Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager hit a turf chopper on a 1-2 pitch that stayed just fair past first base and hopped into the right-field corner for a two-run double.
Just like that, it was 5-0.
“You’re one pitch from striking out the side,” Balfour said, “and then you go out and give up five.”
The late burst carried the Mariners to their seventh victory in eight games and, at 33-29, boosted them to four games over .500 for the first time since they finished the 2009 season at 85-77.
It just came too late to reward Hernandez, who has never won a game at Tropicana Field. That makes it unique among current big-league ballparks where he has started at least once.
“One of these days,” he said with a smile.
When and if that occurs, he is unlikely to pitch as well as this.
“I think he was even better than the perfect game,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. “Better today than when he threw the perfect game (against the Rays on Aug. 15, 2012) in Seattle. He was that outstanding.”
Yoervis Medina (3-1) replaced Hernandez to start the eighth and got the victory when the Mariners rocked Balfour with their five-run ninth. Dominic Leone and Charlie Furbush closed out the shutout in a non-save situation.
Archer was nearly as good as Hernandez in limiting the Mariners to five hits over 6⅓ innings before Maddon went to the bullpen. Jake McGee and Joel Peralta got the scoreless game to Balfour.
Hernandez finished with a flourish after Tampa Bay turned Ben Zobrist’s leadoff single in the seventh into a threat. Cano reached Zobrist’s grounder up the middle but an across-the-body throw arrived late at first.
After Hernandez matched his career high by getting his 13th strikeout — he caught David DeJesus looking — Zobrist stole second and went to third on a wild pitch.
Hernandez responded by striking out Matt Joyce and Escobar.
It marked the 21st time a Mariners pitcher has struck out 15 or more. Randy Johnson did it 17 times, Mark Langston twice and Mike Moore once. It also marked the end for Hernandez.
“He was spent,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “He used everything he had in that seventh inning to get us out of that inning.
“When you have an emotional inning like that, you’re usually going to have a letdown the next inning. I just didn’t want that to happen. I had seen enough.”