Felix continues dominance of A's with near-shutout
Ackley, Almonte homer in decisive fifth inning as Hernandez K's eight
OAKLAND -- Felix Hernandez has been one of baseball's premier pitchers for the greater part of a decade, so it's saying something when the Mariners' ace figures he's never felt better starting a season.
After overpowering the A's for 8 1/3 innings in Saturday's 3-1 victory at O.co Coliseum, Hernandez acknowledged his first two starts have been as good as he can remember coming out of the gates.
"Oh yeah," Hernandez said, after improving to 2-0 with a 1.88 ERA with road wins over the A's and Angels. "I felt strong. I felt really good. All my pitches were right there."
Hernandez came within three outs of his 10th career shutout, but Jed Lowrie ended that with a leadoff homer in the ninth. After a single by Brandon Moss, new closer Fernando Rodney was summoned to get the final two outs -- both strikeouts -- for his first save with the Mariners.
The surprising Mariners improved to 4-1 on its opening road trip with one game to go Sunday, and Hernandez has earned two of those wins.
"I would say for seven innings, that might be the best I've seen him," said A's manager Bob Melvin. "Especially early on, it looked like he had a little more hop on his fastball. He mixed in his breaking ball a little bit more and then he always has the changeup whenever he wants it.
"We started to get some good swings at the end there against him -- three guys in the eighth hit the ball hard and leading off the ninth -- but for seven innings, that's about as good as I've seen him."
Hernandez's final line was 8 1/3 innings with six hits, one run, one walk and eight strikeouts on 101 pitches. Two of those hits came in the final frame and he also surrendered a long foul ball to Yoenis Cespedes that would have tied the game with Moss standing at second.
But Hernandez dug in and got Cespedes to fly out to right before Rodney struck out John Jaso and Josh Reddick.
New Mariners skipper Lloyd McClendon said Hernandez has thrown just two bad pitches in his first two starts: a first-inning home run to Mike Trout in the opener, and the high curve that Lowrie drove out in the ninth on Saturday.
"I saw the same guy I saw last week," McClendon said. "Last week, he backed up one slider [to Trout]. He was pretty good. Today, he left one up and was pretty good again. I'll take that every time."
McClendon went to the mound and told Hernandez that Cespedes would be his final hitter, then called for Rodney. The new closer had a rough spring, but McClendon felt all along that Rodney would be fine once the season started and the adrenaline started flowing in save situations.
"He turned it up," McClendon said. "You hear people talk all the time about how anybody can pitch the ninth. But the ninth inning is real tough, even for one of the greatest pitchers of all time. It's just not that easy. It's a different animal in that ninth inning and you could see Rodney turn it up, turn it on. There was a different look in the eye."
Rodney, who saved 85 games for the Rays the past two years, was in full agreement.
"Just like I told you guys, I was working both sides and on my location with my fastball [in spring]," he said. "It looked good tonight, both sides of the plate, throwing strikes. The regular season is different."
Left fielder Dustin Ackley launched a two-run blast off A's starter Dan Straily in the fifth, and center fielder Abraham Almonte followed with an even longer home run to right field in the same frame, giving Hernandez all the breathing room he would need.
Prior to that, the Mariners had managed just two singles off Straily over the first four frames while striking out seven times. But Ackley said they were able to get a better read on the right-hander after seeing him for a few innings.
"You kind of get the speed and arm slot he's got," Ackley said. "All that helps. I think having a runner on third, maybe he was thinking about that a little bit and he threw me a pitch I could hit. I'm just glad I didn't miss it."
Hernandez did the rest, which isn't surprising, as he's had his way with the A's over the years. The four-time All-Star is now 16-7 with a 2.59 ERA in 30 starts against his American League West rivals, and he remains unbeaten in his last 10 outings in Oakland.
The Mariners' ace came out dealing from the start on the sunny afternoon game, as 19 of his first 21 pitches were strikes. Hernandez struck out five of the first seven batters he faced, and the A's didn't get a ball out of the infield until No. 9 hitter Eric Sogard lined out to Ackley in left.
Hernandez didn't allow a baserunner until Lowrie singled with two outs in the fourth on a ground ball up the middle, just beyond the reach of second baseman Robinson Cano.
Cano went 2-for-3 with an intentional walk, and he has hit safely in all five games this season with a .421 batting average. But it says a lot that the $240-million man really hasn't played a big role yet with two RBIs and two runs scored, with the rest of the Mariners lineup delivering the key hits.
As a result, the Mariners are off to a nice start against two of their AL West rivals.
"We've got these guys coming up again on the homestand," Ackley said. "So this start of the year is huge for us, to get out and get some wins and maybe separate ourselves a little bit and kind of show everybody we mean business."