SEATTLE -- As the Mariners push for their first playoff berth in 17 seasons, one of the biggest quandaries is just how Felix Hernandez fits into that equation.The longtime face of the franchise was the Mariners' fifth-best starter in the first half and -- after skipping a start to rest
SEATTLE -- As the Mariners push for their first playoff berth in 17 seasons, one of the biggest quandaries is just how Felix Hernandez fits into that equation.
The longtime face of the franchise was the Mariners' fifth-best starter in the first half and -- after skipping a start to rest a sore lower back -- came off the disabled list Saturday night and took the loss in a 5-0 setback to the White Sox at Safeco Field.
As general manager Jerry Dipoto ponders the possibility of adding another starter prior to the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, Hernandez continues searching for signs of progress and felt he found some despite Saturday's outcome.
The 32-year-old came out strong and tied a season high with seven strikeouts in his five-inning stint, but a three-run homer by Avisail Garcia in a four-run fourth spoiled the night and dropped the former American League Cy Young Award winner to 8-8 with a career-high 5.14 ERA.
"I felt fine and had my best stuff all year," Hernandez said.
Manager Scott Servais agreed that Hernandez had much better life on his changeup and looked stronger than his final starts of the first half.
"Definitely a step forward," Servais said. "I thought his stuff was much crisper, much better than it had the last, probably, two or three times before we put him on the disabled list. I was encouraged by that, it just got away from him in that one inning."
Facing a 34-63 White Sox team, Hernandez allowed five hits and four runs (three earned) with two walks in his 80-pitch outing, and has now been limited to five innings in four of his last five starts.
Hernandez struck out six of the seven batters he faced in the second and third innings, but gave up a leadoff single to Yolmer Sanchez in the fourth and hit Jose Abreu before delivering a first-pitch changeup that Garcia drove over the center-field fence, a shot projected at 418 feet by Statcast™.
"He hit a pretty good pitch," Hernandez said. "It's baseball. It wasn't a mistake, it was a good pitch and he put a good swing on it."
Hernandez has received good run support much of the season, but that element was missing this time as White Sox right-hander Dylan Covey (4-5, 4.95 ERA) held Seattle to two hits and a pair of walks in 8 1/3 innings, the longest outing of his career.
The 26-year-old Covey had gone 0-4 with an 11.70 ERA in his previous five starts, but the Mariners didn't manage a hit until Dee Gordon's one-out single in the sixth and never advanced a runner past second base.
"You have to give their pitcher credit," Servais said. "That's a really good sinking fastball. That's 94-96 mph, the bottom is dropping out of it. You've got to get him to elevate the ball. But we'll have some good at-bats tomorrow and hopefully put some rallies together and that's what it's gonna take. We've got to bust out of this thing offensively."
Seattle has lost nine of its last 13 games in falling to 59-40, now six games back of Houston in the AL West and three games ahead of the A's for the final Wild Card spot after Oakland beat the Giants in 11 innings.
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The Mariners had just one offensive threat against Covey, when Jean Segura reached second base on a throwing error by third baseman Sanchez leading off the fourth and Mitch Haniger followed with a walk. But Segura was thrown out trying to steal third with a 4-0 deficit and Covey got out of the inning with a groundout by Nelson Cruz and strikeout of Kyle Seager.
"Certainly when you're down in the ballgame like that, you're taking a big gamble," Servais said. "You have to be 100 percent sure that you're gonna be safe, obviously he wasn't, and it did take a little wind out of our sails there. You get a couple guys on, you're trying to get back in the ballgame. So, not a good decision, obviously."
Hernandez's seven strikeouts put his career total at 2,436. He needs six more to pass Jamie Moyer for 41st on MLB's all-time list. He's racked up 1,300 strikeouts at Safeco Field, just the fourth pitcher since 1970 with that many strikeouts in one ballpark. The others: Steve Carlton (1,615 at Veterans Stadium), Nolan Ryan (1,446 at Angel Stadium) and Roger Clemens (1,398 at Fenway Park).
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Mitch Haniger nearly got the Mariners on the board with a deep smash to left field off Joakim Soria, who replaced Covey with one out in the ninth. But Leury Garcia went up high to rob Haniger with a leaping catch at the top of the wall to preserve the White Sox shutout.
Marco Gonzales (10-5, 3.41 ERA) closes out the series with the White Sox on Sunday at 1:10 p.m. PT against right-hander Reynaldo Lopez (4-7, 3.91). Gonzales' 10 wins led the Mariners in the first half and he's 3-0 with a 0.82 ERA over his last three starts. The 26-year-old lefty beat the White Sox, 1-0, on April 24 in Chicago, allowing five hits with eight strikeouts in six innings.
Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.