On the way to his first 20-win season and a Cy Young Award, Felix Hernandez ran into an obstacle – August.
In it, he had made five starts, compiled a 2.45 earned run average and won one game before Friday. And yes, he was frustrated. To pick up his 12th win on Aug. 1, matching his single-season high, then not get another win all month …
The Seattle Mariners helped Hernandez get No. 13 on Friday, beating the Kansas City Royals, 6-3, and he returned the favor by pitching seven solid innings to guide them to their 67th victory.
“Felix came to the ballpark with a sinus headache, and he wasn’t at full strength,” manager Don Wakamatsu said. “He gave us seven innings, limited the damage, got a win.”
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“It was my day to pitch,” Hernandez said, shrugging. “The win cured me – a little bit. It had been a long time.”
Hernandez never let his frustration show – perhaps as impressive a show of maturity as any he’s had – after three mid-August games in which he pitched 20 innings, allowed four earned runs and got three no-decisions.
The reason was simple: Seattle couldn’t score runs for him in those games. Had he won two of them, he’d be sitting on an American League-high 15 wins and likely be the AL Cy Young Award favorite.
By not winning any of them, it means he’ll need to pitch great baseball – and get run support – in his final five September starts to stay in the pitching award derby.
Which is fine by Felix.
“I’m feeling good, we’re having fun, we’re playing well,” Hernandez said. “I just want the ball every five days.”
If Felix needed further inspiration, he got it from teammate Mike Sweeney.
Sweeney, the 36-year-old veteran having the time of his life in Seattle, spent 13 seasons with Kansas City. What they saw of him in a Mariners uniform Friday might have made them miss him all the more.
On a six-game hitting streak during which he is 11-for-22, Sweeney singled and worked his way around to score during Seattle’s two-run second inning – although the way he did so stunned the Royals and dazzled his own teammates.
On third base with one out and a run in, Sweeney danced off the bag when shortstop Josh Wilson tapped back to the mound. But when pitcher Brian Bannister threw to first base for the out, Sweeney broke for home.
He beat the return throw to the plate with a head-first slide around catcher Miguel Olivo and got a huge ovation from the Safeco Field crowd of 26,714 – and a standing ovation from the Seattle dugout.
“Twenty-four guys high-fived me,” Sweeney said, “and (Ken Griffey) Junior wanted me to take a drug test.”
How did the play come about?
“(Third base coach) Bruce Hines told me to make sure the ball got through the infield, but when Bannister took it, he looked my way kind of lackadaisically, so I darted for home,” Sweeney said.
When, he was asked, was the last time he’d “darted” anywhere?
“It’s been a while,” he acknowledged.
Sweeney singled and scored again during Seattle’s two-run fourth inning, this time on the more traditional route of a two-run single from Wilson.
Wilson, the baby-faced reserve infielder picked up by Jack Zduriencik on waivers in June, is batting .318 with three home runs and eight RBI – three of those RBI coming in this, Seattle’s 67th victory.
Between them, Sweeney and Wilson might personify their club in 2009 – role players who execute the small things it takes to win.
Sweeney was a non-roster invitee to spring training, a veteran right-handed hitter and clubhouse presence that Wakamatsu asked for and got.
Wilson was a 25th man with San Diego, a slick-fielding middle infielder whom Zduriencik picked up after outfielder Endy Chavez went down with a season-ending injury.
In his first stay with the Mariners, Wilson rarely played, and he was optioned to Tacoma in July, returning to Seattle on Aug. 13 when Adrian Beltre was hurt.
Neither would be considered an impact player on any other team, but – on this team – both have been given the opportunity to play and have made a mark.
Sweeney, who drew a bases-loaded walk in the seventh to push home an insurance run, is batting .261 with five home runs and 24 RBI in 55 games.
“Mike probably personifies this club in a lot of ways,” Wakamatsu said. “What he brings to the team every day in the clubhouse, the way he plays on the field, he’s a leader. And he still knows how to play the game.
“Of course, after he came into the dugout after sliding head-first, I had to ask the trainers, ‘Once the adrenaline wears off, make sure he’s OK.’ ”
Sweeney was. Hernandez was. Even Bill Hall, who started in right field and then played third base, was OK.
“I just came into the dugout, threw a cup on and changed gloves,” Hall said. “No big deal.”