Felix Hernandez and Chris Archer. This figured to be a pitchers’ duel Wednesday afternoon at Tropicana Field, and the two aces sure didn’t disappoint.
Then enter Rays closer Brad Boxberger. And cue up Nelson Cruz.
Boxberger replaced Archer to start the ninth inning, struck out two hitters, then walked two hitters … all as a prelude to Cruz crushing a fastball for a three-run homer into the Rays’ Touch Tank as the Mariners beat the Rays, 3-0.
It was a 430-foot drive that ended in a splash. It was just the fourth ball to do so in the 18-year history of Tropicana Field. It was Cruz’s 18th homer of the season. And it was sufficient for Felix, who completed a four-hit shutout.
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“Great game,” Cruz said. “Archer threw the ball amazing. Felix was Felix. We just waited long enough to get away from Archer.”
Archer dazzled in a 12-strikeout performance while giving up just two hits and walking none over eight innings. He departed after throwing 95 pitches. The 12 strikeouts matched a career high.
“He was pounding the strike zone and striking out a lot of people,” Hernandez said. “For me, I just had to go out there and match him every inning.
“Every time you face a guy like that, your (performance) level has to be up. I was not pumped. I was calm. Just throwing my good pitches.”
Hernandez surrendered four hits, all singles, and followed each one by getting a double-play grounder later in the inning. Those DPs minimized his pitch count (101), which made it a no-brainer to let him close it out.
“What a performance,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “I don’t know what to say about the guy. When we need a complete game, he goes out and gives us a complete game.
“This one lived up to the billing. I can’t say enough about their young starter. He was tremendous. At times, dominating. … Needless to say, I was happy to see him leave the game.”
The victory pulled the Mariners back to .500 at 23-23, completed a three-game sweep at The Trop and a 6-3 road trip. It also promised a happy overland flight to Seattle.
“We’re starting to hit our stride a little bit,” McClendon said. “I think it was a little overexaggerated that we fell off a cliff or that we had a country-club atmosphere in our clubhouse. I think those were unfair shots.”
Hernandez (8-1) became the first pitcher this year to reach eight victories, while recording his second shutout and lowering his ERA to 1.91.
“We knew it was going to be one of those games,” catcher Mike Zunino said. “We knew, as an offense, if we could outlast Archer with Felix on the mound, that we stood a chance. And we were able to do that.”
Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said he pulled Archer because he wanted Boxberger to start with a clean inning.
“If a guy gets on base,” Cash said, “we’re pulling (Archer), most likely, for (Seth) Smith or (Robinson) Cano in that situation. You try to take care of the reliever in Box … and present a fair position to succeed.”
Boxberger (2-3) had not allowed a homer in his first 18 games, while compiling a 1.10 ERA, before serving up Kyle Seager’s game-winning blast Tuesday when the Mariners pulled out a 7-6 victory in 10 innings.
This time, after replacing Archer, Boxberger began the ninth by striking out Zunino and Austin Jackson before Smith worked a walk.
“You’re just trying to get on base any way you can,” Smith said. “It was really just an at-bat. It ended up being huge but, when you’re doing it, there’s two outs, and you’re just trying to get on base.”
When Boxberger then walked Cano, the Mariners sent Chris Taylor into the game as a pinch-runner for Smith at second base.
Then Cruz happened. His homer was just the Mariners’ third hit of the game.
“I was just hoping that it would drop,” he said, “that (center fielder Brandon Guyer) wouldn’t catch it. That was my hope. I hit it OK. It was a good swing.”
It went splash.
And when it did, Hernandez told himself: “That was the run that we need. The game’s over.”