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September 28, 2010 at 9:33 PM

The question of whether to give Mariners ace Felix Hernandez one more start now takes on multiple dimensions

Let’s make this nice and simple: Felix Hernandez threw eight innings of one-run ball to beat the Texas Rangers 3-1 tonight. He’s now at 249 2/3 innings and that’s a total the M’s are thinking is plenty big for a season at 96 team losses and counting.
But hold on a minute.
There’s a Cy Young Award up for grabs and Hernandez’s 13-12 record would have to beat Tim Lincecum’s previous record low for a starting pitcher when it comes to the big prize. Don’t forget, C.C. Sabathia is at 21 wins and David Price at 19 after both won in dominant fashion tonight to strengthen their Cy bids.
Hernandez’s fortunes just may rest on capturing the remaining Big Three categories of ERA, inning pitched and strikeouts.
He’s got the innings thing wrapped up. But even in lowering his ERA to 2.27 tonight — the first time he’s been that low since April — he still could lose the lead with a strong outing by Clay Buchholz of the Red Sox this coming Saturday.
Buchholz is at 2.33, but his innings total is low enough for some massive movement in either direction. If Buchholz throws five scoreless innings against the Yankees this weekend, he’ll tie Hernandez’s ERA. If he throws another third of an inning more than that without allowing a run, he’ll beat Hernandez’s ERA.
If Buchholz gives up one run, he’d have to last 7 1/3 innings to tie Hernandez’s ERA. If he throws eight innings of one-run ball, he’d beat Hernandez.
On the strikeout front, Jered Weaver simply needs to fan four more batters to retake the lead.
And so, Hernandez could be pitching to secure two top categories on Sunday, if he gets the chance.
What does he say about that? Better listen to this.
“Definitely, I want to start one more game,” he said. “Oh yeah.”
What about the team’s concerns about his mounting innings? He’s already pushing 490 combined over the last two seasons. Getting into red-zone territory there.
“That’s not enough,” he replied. “That’s not enough. In this season, I’ve got one more start.”
So, what if the team shuts him down now?
“If they say ‘No more’ I’m going to go out there Sunday. I’m going to get ready and I’m going to go on the mound.”
Well, then. OK. Anybody got Howard Lincoln’s phone number? Hiroshi Yamuachi’s maybe? Hernandez says he has Lincoln’s. He was joking. We think.
Photo Credit: AP

Now, let’s be clear. Sending Hernandez back out there on Sunday has its share of risks.
Let’s say the A’s hit a first-inning grand slam. That Kurt Suzuki guy can be a pest and you never know where he’ll turn up in their lineup.
Well, if the A’s get a first inning slam, Hernandez’s ERA would shoot up from 2.27 to 2.41. Bye-bye to the ERA title.
A four-spot in the first would leave Hernandez needing to throw a complete game in order to get his ERA back to the 2.33 that Buchholz has his at right now. And you know Hernandez wouldn’t get the complete-game shot. No way. He’d probably get yanked real early if roughed up.
So, one false step and he could blow the ERA title and still not land the requisite number of strikeouts to pass Weaver.
Instead of having the lead in three major categories, he’d be down to just one.
And he could blow his winning record as well.
So, there are some real risks here for Hernandez. It wouldn’t just be stat-padding time. He could blow the entire thing on that last day.
Oh yeah, and then, there’s his long-term health. The M’s, as I’ve mentioned, aren’t fooling around with this stuff. There have been plenty of cases of young pitchers blowing out their arms after consecutive innings loads of more than 200 per season. He’s already in dangerous territory.
Mariners manager Daren Brown said Hernandez won’t throw his side session until Thursday, if he’s to pitch again. So, we’ve got about 36 hours before the team has to make a call on this.
I asked Brown whether the Cy Young might factor into the team’s decision-making on Sunday’s start.
“I don’t know if that will factor into it, but it’s something we’ll sit down and discuss,” he said.
What won’t factor into it? The team losing or not losing 100. Seattle has to go 2-3 over the next five to avoid 100 defeats. But if the M’s are at 1-3 going into Sunday, Brown insists it won’t be his tipping point on using Hernandez.
“Felix is important to the organization,” Brown said. “He’s important to us to win ballgames. Not to keep us from losing ballgames.”
My guess? If Buchholz passes him in ERA and Weaver in strikeouts, the M’s will send Hernandez back out for no more than five innings on Sunday to get those two categories back. Five innings would also enable him to boost his record to 14-12 if his team wins.
But that’s just a guess. I think the team wants to strike a balance here between doing what’s right by Hernandez present-day and the team long-term. If he loses the Cy Young in a close vote, there could be just a tiny bit of resentment if he knows he could have locked up all three categories with a few more innings in a start he’s on-schedule to make.
Or not. I’m not a mind-reader. But it’s human nature to want to lay it all out there until the final whistle. That still hasn’t sounded. The question is whether the M’s blow that whistle for him.



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