BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 08/21/2018

Thiel: Dinosaur Felix not quite extinct yet

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.

Felix Hernandez threw 100 pitches in six innings Monday night against Houston. / Alan Chitlik, Sportspress Northwest

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.


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YourThoughts

  • coug73

    Not to rain on the M’s win last night, go M’s. How is Richard Sherman doing with the 9’ers?

    • art thiel

      He’s been training but not playing in games yet. Don’t think he’ll be ready for the start of the regular season.

      • Tian Biao

        his oratorical skills, however, are in mid-season form.

  • Effzee

    In a way, I feel a bit sorry for Felix. Can you imagine being Howard Lincoln’s human bobblehead promotion? Felix was never asked to do pitch in a pressure situation under previous ownership. He was never asked to do any work on his game, make adjustments, or god forbid… learn something new about pitching. Nobody required anything of him other than to go out every fifth day, use his natural ability, and perform up to the task of entertaining the King’s Court lemmings. Nobody ever challenged him or took him under their wing or showed any interest in helping him hone his craft. He had the misfortune of playing for a Mickey Mouse operation that baseball lifers (Piniella, Hargrove, Wedge) all ran from like they were on fire.

    • art thiel

      Plenty of blame deservedly falls on the Lincoln/Armstrong junta. But Felix’s own stubbornness, and his reluctance to adapt, are playing roles in his late-career travails.

      • Effzee

        I totally agree. My point is that had a serious baseball mind been there to help him with being aware of the benefits of adaptation, evolution, etc., then maybe he wouldn’t be having these struggles. Who know, maybe some of his previous coaches tried. But that’s all hindsight. We are where we are. I’m glad his mind seems to be opening a bit.

        • Tian Biao

          why don’t they call Jamie Moyer in for a consultation? as for Felix, he’s lost some mph, yes, but he’s also lost some command of his pitches. not sure why. But it’s a big reason for his struggles.

  • Kevin Lynch

    Good summation, Art! What a quandary to be in with the starters. And just three and a half games from the division lead. Lots of talent and lots of spunk on this team. And lots of experience to win games like last night – five straight over the world champs. But -39 is a bad juju number, the run differential. The Angels are +39, a 78 run difference. The Twinkies are just -24. What is the lowest number for a playoff team in MLB history?

    • art thiel

      Teams have made the playoffs with negative differentials, including AZ under Melvin in 2007. https://www.mlb.com/news/mike-bauman-run-differential-far-from-perfect/c-132583912

      • Kevin Lynch

        Yes, but combining with the onerous run differential is the fact they are 8th in pitching out of 15 teams, 10th in runs and 8th in fielding. So they are not great at anything but closing one run games. They are close in the standings but waiting for a team to collapse makes them a dark horse candidate. They have won 57% of their games. If Houston and Oakland do not tank the M’s will need to charge with 4.00 pitchers and no lock down starter. Bottom line: they have to score more runs.

  • woofer

    Sentimentality aside, after Leake the most convincing performance in the role of a starting pitcher over the last week was provided by fill-in Erasmo Ramirez. Despite control issues, he only gave up one run to the Dodgers over five innings in the ribald balk-off affair. He may be flying below the media radar, but it’s hard to see the M’s staying afloat in the pennant derby without more such contributions from Ramirez.

  • Alan Harrison

    “You’ve gotta find a way to get out of your own way, so you can progress in life.” – Steve Carlton. Lots of comparisons between Carlton and Felix (although Carlton was one of the best ever while Felix was just extremely good). I still think that if Felix’s pitching personality were a little less macho and garnered a little more cunning, he’d learn a knuckler and let the successful part of his career last another 10 years. But I don’t think he’s built for that.

  • Husky73

    This 2018 Mariner Optimist will always love the man and the competitor. But, stick a fork in him– he’s done. The same can be said for the Mariners starting staff, who are now happy to get 3-4 innings into a game. King Felix is now Eddie Harris (Major League) who put Crisco, Bardahl, Vagisil and snot on the ball. (“Someday you will too”) The M’s need a September miracle.