BY John Hickey 10:30PM 04/01/2011

Felix goes all the way, dominates opener

Offense provides rare support for M’s ace, as does sloppy A’s defense

Ichiro had two hits and two stolen bases in Seattle's victory over the Oakland Athletics in the Mariners' 2011 season opener Friday night. / Getty Images

OAKLAND – All this talk about pitch counts from pitching coaches goes in one ear and out the other.

So a batter sees three pitches or five – what does it matter? So a pitcher throws a dozen pitches in an inning or a dozen and a half – how does that impact guys who have thrown tens of thousands of pitches over the years?

Then comes a game like Friday’s season opener with Felix Hernandez pitching for Seattle and Trevor Cahill for Oakland. And it happens that pitch counts matter very much.

For the first half of the game, Cahill had a 2-1 advantage over defending Cy Young Award winner Hernandez, thanks to a first-inning, two-run homer by Oakland left fielder Josh Willingham.

But inning after inning, the Mariners made Cahill work. He averaged more than 20 pitches per inning while Hernandez was less than half that. By the third inning it was clear that Cahill wasn’t going to last long. Once the Mariners matched up against the Oakland bullpen (and the A’s miserable, five-error defense), Seattle rode the well-rested Hernandez to a 6-2 Opening Night win.

Hernandez was harmed only by the one pitch that Willingham launched to left – the only Opening Day homer Hernandez has allowed in his four debuts with Seattle. Cahill was dogged by all his pitches and by back-to-back errors in the fourth turned in by Oakland third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff. They didn’t lead to runs but did load the bases and extend the time Cahill had to be on the mound.

By the fifth, a two-out walk to Justin Smoak and single by Miguel Olivo stretched Cahill’s pitch count to 105 and forced the Oakland bullpen into the game. Cahill left with a 2-1 lead, but the A’s bullpen gave up five runs in the next two innings. If his pitch count had been lower, he probably would have pitched longer and maybe kept the Mariners at bay.

Once Hernandez was given the lead on a game-tying single by Ichiro Suzuki and a subsequent tie-breaking homer from Chone Figgins, he was in a groove. After Willingham’s homer, Hernandez set down 18 of the next 19 batters before giving up a leadoff single in the eighth.

“He (Cahill) was behind a lot of hitters,’’ Hernandez said, `”and that was a credit to the way our guys battled him. You always feel if you can get their starter out in the fifth inning or before, the hitters have done a good job.’’

Cahill went 4.2 innings, giving up one run. The A’s bullpen, although extensively retooled over the winter, didn’t acquit itself well; Seattle hitters made sure of that.

“He’s a good one,’’ Figgins said of Cahill, “but we made him throw a lot of pitches. We put on the pressure. That was the difference.’’

Figgins hit a solo homer, equaling total last year. He’s a little ahead of his 2010 pace.

“It’s like it was during the spring,’’ Figgins said. “I’m being aggressive at the plate. I don’t hit many, but when I do, I generally know when they’re gone.’’

Figgins pumped his fist toward the sky before rounding first base. His homer would have been worth more had Ichiro, who already stole two bases, avoided being thrown out on another steal attempt. It mattered little when the Mariners came up with three runs in the seventh, thanks in large measure to two of the five Oakland errors.

After that it was up to Hernandez, who said Willingham “hit a good pitch, a sinker in,’’ for the homer in the first. From that point through the seventh, only one more A’s runner reached base. Two hits by Oakland opened the eighth, but Hernandez’s pitch count was low enough that manager Eric Wedge, making his Seattle regular-season debut, didn’t get anyone up in the bullpen.

Hernandez probably came into the game with a pitch limit in the 110 range, but he needed just 92 to get the Mariners through eight innings. That allowed the Seattle ace to pitch in the ninth inning. The result was the first opening day complete game  in team history, 108 pitches total.

The pivot point in this game, then, was that Cahill threw almost the same number of pitches but wound up squandering them.

“I had a lot of pitches in the first two innings like he did,’’ Hernandez said. He had 38 en route to his 14th career complete game. “But I started throwing strikes after that.’’

The A’s had no answer.

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Twitter: @JHickey3


YourThoughts

  • Sam Chowder

    A Mariners team that doesn’t do the opposing pitchers work for him and even makes that pitcher work harder than he’s supposed to? Wow! Keep it up, gentlemen.