Robinson Cano had a three-run homer to win the game, but it was Felix Hernandez who kept the Mariners in the game, helping patch a fading rotation.
In 2005, the first season in the bigs for Felix Hernandez, 50 major league pitchers threw at least 200 innings. He went on to have eight seasons of 200-plus.
By 2010, there were 45 pitchers who reached the benchmark. In 2015, 28. In 2016 and in 2017, there were 15 each season. In 2018, there will probably be fewer. None of them will be Mariners.
Along with many other MLB teams, the Mariners are running out of pitchers who can eat innings, especially starting pitchers. The Mariners seem to be leaking faster than most.
That’s why infielder Andrew Romine pitched two of the past three games prior to Ash Monday’s game at Safeco against Houston. It’s also why Roenis Elias was forced into a start Sunday he wasn’t ready for, resulting in a 5-0 deficit to the Dodgers nearly before the Mariners climbed out of their jammies for the day game.
“The end of August is sometimes the most challenging time,” manager Scott Servais said before the Mariners’ 7-4 win over the Astros. “In September, you get some reinforcements (callups from the minors begin Sept. 1). It’s the way the game is going.
“Nobody appreciates like I do those guys who can give you seven innings. They’re hard to find, hard to come by.”
Hernandez came close Monday, offering six innings. He gave up four runs, five hits, two walks and a wild pitch that allowed a run. So it wasn’t a flashback to the royal empire of King Felix, but he provided 100 pitches in his 400th career appearance.
It was enough.
He kept the Mariners in the game against the American League West-leading Astros. The 4-4 tie was broken by 1B Robinson Cano’s dramatic three-run homer in the eighth, but the biggest winner of the evening was the entire pitching staff because Hernandez restored a modest order.
After giving up three runs in the third and inspiring here-we-go-again murmurs in the crowd, Hernandez made a mechanical adjustment that helped him shut down the Astros the next three innings.
“There was a marked difference in his last three innings,” Servais said. “I asked him, ‘Do you know what you did? Did you feel it?’ He had a pretty good idea.
“(It was) the finish on his pitches, his extension down the mound, getting his arm out front . . . . it was a noticeable difference in location.”
Hernandez’s explanation was simpler: “Maybe angry?”
Whether it was a mad-on or mechanics, Hernandez found a way to stay close enough to allow the offense to have its way with Houston starter Gerrit Cole and reliever Collin McHugh. The win was the fifth in a row over Houston, a streak made more impressive because the Astros have a rotation with the talent and experience that is the envy of the land, certainly in Seattle.
Not counting the now-distant prime years of Hernandez, Mike Leake, 30, is the only starter familiar with pitching full seasons. He has four seasons of at least 185 innings and has a staff-high 154 now.
Believe it or not, James Paxton, 29, is at a career high in innings pitched — just 139, three more than a year ago. But he’s on the disabled list recovering from a batted ball off his left arm.
Wade LeBlanc, 34, was 25 the last time he’s pitched so much — 146 innings in 2010 for the San Diego Padres He hasn’t reached 80 MLB innings again until now. He’s at 122 and getting hit around quite a bit.
The youngest, newest starter, Marco Gonzales, hit his career high in 2017 with 40 innings between St. Louis and Seattle. He’s at 142 now and was pushed back in the rotation to try to buy him some rest.
“Leake’s been our most consistent guy,” Servais said. “Marco’s kinda been that guy with Mike, but had a couple rough outings. So we tried to pull him back, and charge his batteries.
“We need Paxton back. We’re limited in depth for guys we can bring up and slide in that spot.”
Ahead of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, speculation was thick that the Mariners would pursue a veteran starter. Instead they acquired an outfielder, Cameron Maybin, and three relievers. GM Jerry Dipoto had neither the prospects nor the will to get a quality starter.
“Whether you think you had enough, everybody wants starting pitching,” he said. “It’s just not available for the price. We addressed it as best we could at the time.”
That address also went a little sour.
One of the three new relievers, Sam Tuivailala, had surgery last week to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon, the same kind of injury that helped end the Seattle tenure of ex-Seahawks CB Richard Sherman. Typical recovery is six to eight months.
Before the season began, another reliever, David Phelps, had surgery that ended his season. More recently, Juan Nicasio and Dan Altavilla went to the disabled list. Bad health is not the complete reason the Mariners were outscored 27-7 over the weekend in losing two of three to the defending National League champion Dodgers, but the withering of the mound staff grows acute.
“When we had our really good stretches earlier in the season, it was driven by starting pitching,” Servais said. “Getting deep into the game and lining up your bullpen correctly. Not overusing guys.”
But it’s mid-August, and the Mariners’ options dwindle, since most of the minor-league pitching prospects who might be helpful immediately have been traded away.
The dog days are a bad time to run out of players.
“Everyone goes through that little rut until you get a second wind in September and feel the push right around the corner,” C Mike Zunino said. “The guys brought up (Sept. 1) can provide relief, but the guys here since day one want the ball.
“We have guys who’ve thrown more than they have in the past. It’s part of the learning process for guys taking the next step in their careers. Hopefully, a little extra rest will help.”
Meantime, there is no slack for the well-paid. Whether as starter or reliever, Hernandez has to come through for a thin staff wounded and wobbly.
“We need this from him,” Servais said.
Hernandez may be from the Jurassic period of baseball, when 200-inning pitchers roamed the earth. But he was alive and mostly well Monday, suggesting the Mariners aren’t quite as extinct as they looked over the weekend.