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June 21, 2007 at 10:52 PM

Hernandez rolls over Pirates

Make that consecutive strong outings by Mariners starting pitchers. We haven’t seen this since back in Week 1 when Felix Hernandez and Jarrod Washburn helped Seattle defeat the Oakland A’s. But those were not as solid as these two outings, the complete-game shutout by Jeff Weaver and this 3-0 win here tonight by Felix Hernandez, who went eight innings and fanned nine.
With aplologies to “MJ” I know exactly how much Ken Griffey Jr. means to Seattle and we’ve talked about it all week. Larry Stone went to visit with him in Cincinnati and wrote about him, we’ve got stuff about him in tomorrow’s paper. It will be a wonderful evening for all involved, I’m sure. But until all the teary-eyed clapping tomorrow night, for a guy who left town eight years ago, I’m going to focus on tonight’s game and the rammifications of it.
Some of you are happy that Hernandez simply won, for the first time since May 25 in Kansas City, and don’t really care about the quality of the opponent. I agree with you, these were major league hitters — even if they did score only two earned runs over 27 innings (and none over the final 20 frames) of this series. If you’re the M’s, you gladly take it.
In the clubhouse afterwards, both Hernandez and Kenji Johjima talked about how pleased they were to see the free-swinging Pirates hit into so many quick outs. How many? By my count, seven of the game’s first nine hitters swung into outs on either the first or second pitch of their at-bats. No wonder Hernandez threw so many early fastballs. As he told us, the Pirates weren’t hitting the fastball tonight. So why not throw it?
“I liked it,” Hernandez said of the Pirates swinging early. “Because I didn’t have to throw too many pitches. You get outs quick. That’s what I like to do.”
Johjima said the early success with the fastball set up Hernandez’s off-speed stuff and breaking pitches later on.
‘We were able to get that strike one, especially with the fastball,” Johjima said. “And then we could attack these hitters with his best stuff. Not like going ball, ball and then using the breaking ball and giving up a base-hit. Today, he was able to get these guys out with his best pitches.”
Hernandez was also able to find a rhythm. He said he’d been flying open too much in previous outings by rushing his delivery. As we all heard yesterday, pitching coach Rafael Chaves urged him to slow things down and the results were palpable.
Hernandez had better command and kept his pitches down.
“I think my balance was very important,” Hernandez said. “My balance was very good today and I finished my pitches. I finished every pitch.”
Some of you asked what this would do for Hernandez’s confidence. Here’s your answer.
“I think that my confidence has gone up,” he said. “I needed one good game like this. I think it’s going to be better for next time.”
His team needed a pair of games like the ones they’ve had the last two nights.
“We were going through a tough time for this team,” Ichiro said through an interpreter. “So, yesterday’s performance by Weaver and today’s performance by Felix was very big.”
And let’s face it, a win is a win. We’ll see whether or not Weaver and Hernandez are as sharp against Boston. But for now, the M’s need to get on another roll. They are back to a game behind second-place Oakland and are now seven behind the Angels. Neither of those teams played tonight.
With the impotent Reds coming to town, the M’s have to seize the moment. Never mind Griffey. The games will be equally important if Seattle has any hope of capitalizing on what’s left of this interleague schedule. So, to answer your questions, yes, this was as good as Hernandez has looked since that Boston outing. If only because he controlled the pace of the game, got quick outs when needed and some key strikeouts too. Haven’t seen him do that and last beyond the sixth inning in quite a while. His command was better, too. The only difference, as I’ve mentioned, is that those were the Red Sox he shut down at Fenway Park back in April. Not the Pirates. I’ll hold off on saying he’s completely back until he faces a tougher opponent than this and stands up well. I mean, hey, do you want me flip-flopping around with every game of a 162-game schedule? I know you don’t.
So, this was a good start for Hernandez on the way back from some pretty lousy ones. Let’s see where things go from here.

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