The Mariners are a good, winning baseball team. As a city, Seattle doesn't really know how to handle that, not because they aren't equipped to, but because they're fans of the Mariners. I don't really know either, and I've seen the good years. I remember what it was like when the Mariners struck fear in opponents. I remember what it was like to wake up every day expecting a win. But those memories have turned to nostalgia, not feelings that I can draw from the deepest part of my mind at will as if they were readily accessible. Slowly, but surely, I'm learning to trust the Mariners again, to not panic every time they hit a rough patch. Before today, a lot of people probably felt the same, with great reluctance.
This kind of a game will put that to the test. There will be panic after this performance. This is as bad as Felix Hernandez has been all year, allowing four homers for the first time in his career while constantly missing his spots and showing an inability to generate swings and misses. It took eight hits before Felix recorded his first strikeout in the 5th inning, but that was the least of his concerns.
Before the inevitable panic, let's not sugarcoat it. Felix was terrible today. On one night, in the middle of an amazing season, Felix was more human than we're accustomed to see him be, and that's wildly unsettling. When Felix is bad, he's usually still pretty decent, relatively. Tonight wasn't full blown Erasmo, but relative to the talent level, it might as well have been. Felix hasn't been very sharp over his past few starts, and there's some reasonable concern to be had, as long as it's paired with a healthy degree of rationality. Not wild optimism, mind you. Felix has been bad before, and he'll be bad again. If he'd scattered these not-so-great outings through the year, there wouldn't be so much concern. There will be this time, just because of sequencing. It's especially familiar after watching Felix start to slide over the later months in previous campaigns that started better than they finished.
I'm still in the crowd that refuses to overreact to one game. The Nationals are a better baseball team who started somebody pretty exceptional tonight themselves, and they won. It's not the loss that causes panic, it's the way they lost. Felix is still one of the very best pitchers in the world, and even the best will have days where the other team punishes every single mistake. There are dozens of far worse pitchers who make far worse pitches than Felix did tonight, yet leave with a more desirable result. The Nationals are a very good team, and they jumped all over every mistake. It was, in many ways, the perfect storm. The worst storm.
Felix will be fine. He's always been fine. What's specifically emotional about tonight is the unfamiliar process to a familiar feeling. Felix has lost a lot of games. He'll lose a lot more. But he rarely loses games in which he's the main person at fault, where fans can't point the finger at the offense, a key error, or something else that takes some of the blame off the man on the mound. Tonight, it was squarely on him. That's unsettling, and will lead to people believing that this loss matters more than any other. If you're in that crowd, try to remind yourself that it doesn't.
It seems pointless to talk about how this impacts the Cy Young. Before tonight, Felix was a lock. Now, it's in question. An implosion from the others, and it changes yet again. There's plenty of baseball left to be played , and it should be left at that. Tonight ended up feeling a lot worse than it actually was, really -- mostly because it killed his FIP more than his ERA, which is really not something the voters are going to put the same kind of weight into as our audience might. 5 runs over 7 innings under a normal, non-bombed scenario wouldn't seem nearly as bad, would it?
If you saw the game and don't want acid in the wound, you'll probably want to stop reading now. Otherwise, here's how it all unfolded.
It was a busy first inning. Felix Hernandez allowed a home run to Anthony Rendon in the 1st, but the rest was quiet, at least until the Mariners came to bat. Dustin Ackley crushed a one out triple to dead center field on a two-strike count, and it was evident that the ball was carrying to center field with ease. Still, Ackley has attacked pitches relentlessly in the second half, and simply has a different air about him recently -- there was a quote that I can't find in which Ackley said he needed to get back to his old self, the one that believed nobody could get him out. He's exchanged plate patience for aggressive swinging, and it's paying massive dividends.
Kendrys Morales grounded a single just off the glove of Adam LaRoche to bring home Ackley after a Robinson Cano walk, and then Kyle Seager just barely missed a 3-run bomb to right field before grounding to Anthony Rendon, who promptly gave back the run he handed the Nationals in the top of the first by making an error. Rendon attempted to end the inning with a wild throw to second base, allowing Cano to score from third. All in all, it was a whopping 33 pitches for Zimmerman in the first, and the Mariners snatched back the lead they coughed up early.
Felix allowed two baserunners in the 2nd, and then caught a break on a line drive directly to Seager that was briefly a double play at first, thanks to a horrendously called play at the bag. The challenge was quickly overturned, and Felix managed a real double play soon after to get himself out of the mini-jam.
But the ball never stopped carrying, and Felix gave up another bomb in the 3rd, this time on a slider left middle/down to Jayson Werth, who pounded it over the fence to center. On a night in April, that might not carry like it did tonight, but Felix left a hittable pitch in the zone and Werth hit it hard enough to carry it out.
Still, the Mariners didn't seem particularly inclined to give up. Cano and Morales hit back to back singles in response, but Seager struck out looking on an outside pitch he probably should have swung at. Then, Mike Zunino had a pathetic at-bat against Zimmerman -- four straight sliders off the plate, three swings and misses. At this point, it's pretty unclear to me why anyone would ever throw Zunino a fastball, or a strike for that matter. Pitch recognition remains a huge problem for Zunino, and this at-bat was the poster child for his struggles. Zimmerman did the exact same thing to Zunino in the 6th, and got the same exact result. It was ugly.
It didn't get much better after that, as Felix left a ball right in Ian Desmond's wheelhouse, and Desmond demolished it to left field, into the visitor's bullpen. He then left another awful pitch to Wilson Ramos, who similarly demolished a a meatball change-up left in the middle of the plate over the wall.
Two singles to left opened the 5th, as Felix continued to hang pitches and miss his spots. He managed to get out of the jam, finally earning his first strikeout. The Mariners put a couple on in the bottom of the 5th, but a pair of pop-ups quelled the threat with a whimper.
The Mariners left Felix in to pitch the next two innings, and while the strikeouts didn't return, his swagger came back a bit. The location still wasn't quite there, but the mistakes were less disastrous and the contact was considerably weaker, save for another bad pitch to Rendon that he promptly crushed for a double into the gap.
Some more runs were scored after Felix exited, including two more bombs off Joe Beimel, but this game was won and lost in the first half. Felix was about as bad as he can possibly be tonight, and he still only allowed five runs in seven innings. That's strangely remarkable, if you're into silver linings.
If Felix can give up four homers in a game, then Roenis Elias can beat Stephen Strasburg. Same time, tomorrow night.