His bullpen was running on fumes Sunday but his ace was on the mound, and Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon desperately needed Felix Hernandez to resemble a vintage version of King Felix against the Texas Rangers.
Hernandez responded with a seven-inning effort, enabling the Mariners to achieve a most elusive accomplishment for them in 2015: winning a rubber game.
Hernandez improved his record to a league-leading 14-6, and given the circumstances — the Mariners’ taxed bullpen and the Rangers’ determination to take pitches — the 4-2 victory was as impressive as any of his dominant shutouts.
“It didn’t look good early. Felix was up to about 50 pitches in the second inning,” McClendon said. “But he finds a way. It’s just amazing. He found a way to get through seven innings, and it’s just his competitive spirit. His command was not there, but boy, he’s gutsy.”
Struggling to adjust to home-plate umpire Lance Barrett’s imaginative interpretation of a strike zone, Hernandez gave up a second-inning run on Rougned Odor’s double down the left-field line and a third-inning run on a wild pitch involving some miscommunication with catcher Mike Zunino.
But after rookie leadoff man Ketel Marte put the Mariners on the board in the bottom of the inning with the first RBI of his career — a single through the hole at second base — and Jesus Montero gave him the lead with a two-run homer to left field in the fourth, Hernandez went into deal mode.
“I knew the bullpen was tired after what happened Saturday,” said Hernandez, referring to the 11-inning defeat that required McClendon to use six relievers. “I just threw to contact.”
Hernandez struck out five — a modest total for the only big-league starter with at least 200 strikeouts and 200 innings pitched in each of the past six seasons — but worked the game into the seventh as if on a mission.
“We knew it was going to be a struggle against Felix,” Rangers manager Jeff Banister said. “Early, we had him where we wanted with his pitch count. In the middle innings, it got away from us a bit. But we also know he’s going to get stronger as the game goes on.”
Hernandez appeared invigorated by the challenge of sparing his manager from calling upon a bullpen that basically came down to Fernando Rodney for the eighth and Carson Smith for the ninth, with starter Vidal Nuno in a worst-case emergency role
Hernandez’s last two outs were on swinging strikes, and when he concluded his 109-pitch afternoon by retiring former teammate Shin-Soo Choo, the crowd of 29,939 roared as he pumped his fist.
McClendon did not consult his starter about how long he thought he could go.
“Felix has a unique ability to know when the end is near,” McClendon said. “I’m at a point now where I really don’t have to ask. I know when he’s done.”
Thanks to an insurance run supplied by a soaring Nelson Cruz homer to left field — it resembled a perfect par-3 tee shot struck with an 8-iron — Rodney enjoyed some cushion for the inevitable crisis he created in the eighth.
The ninth inning posed similar tension when the Rangers had two on with two out and put left-handed slugger Prince Fielder at the plate against right-handed closer Carson Smith. Fielder grounded to second, assuring Hernandez of a victory that could vault him back into the thick of the AL Cy Young race.
“I believe Felix has a run in him,” McClendon said. “He might run the table, you never know.”
MONDAY: Baltimore (RHP Chris Tillman: 8-7, 4.35 ERA) at Seattle (LHP Vidal Nuno: 0-0, 2.88), 7:10 p.m., Root Sports, 1030-AM, 710-AM