Félix Hernández made his MLB debut on August 4th, 2005. He gave up a single earned run, and the Mariners lost.
Félix Hernández made what was likely his last start as a Mariner on September 26th, 2019. Children that were born on his debut were just finished their third or fourth week of high school. Félix gave up three runs, and the Mariners lost.
Those fourteen years saw Mariner fans heighten their expectations, restrain their hope, bargain with nobody, and ultimately accept one inescapable reality: life isn’t a storybook. There isn’t always a happy ending. Life isn’t fair. Félix never made the playoffs, and he probably never will.
Yesterday’s goodbye felt simultaneously like a celebration of Félix and a final act of defiance: a middle finger at reality. Life isn’t fair, and we find joy anyway. These acts of defiance allow us to maintain sanity through negative times. The grim realities make the happy endings that much more significant.
Suffice to say that this morning was something of an emotional hangover.
When tonight’s lineup was released, we saw that Dylan Moore was playing center. I suppose his miracle catch last night earned him the spot, but it wasn’t exactly a portent of good things to come tonight.
Any negative feelings or bad omens were seemingly validated when Justus Sheffield gave up a leadoff dinger to Marcus Semien. The clubbed liner to right began a 96-pitch, five-inning slog for Sheffield. As he labored through a lineup of vanilla Marks and Matts, he seemed to need at least five pitches to retire any one batter.
Despite that, Justus did manage to get through the rest of his five innings unscathed. It wasn’t pretty. He escaped multiple jams. He struck out just two while walking four. His success might have been more a failure on the part of the A’s: they went 0-8 with runners in scoring position. In fundamentally unsexy, un-Félix-like fashion, he posted the same overall line that Félix did in that debut: five innings, one earned run. He gave the Mariners a chance.
Of course, as in Félix’s debut, the Mariners offense spent a good eight innings being wholly ineffectual. They scored a single run in the first that, again, might have been more a failure on the part of the A’s: two wild pitches allowed a run to score on a ground-out. They pushed across a legitimate run in the third, but they left Justus’ 2-1 lead at the mercy of their historically bad bullpen.
Shortly thereafter, the A’s boiled that bullpen. Zac Grotz and Taylor Guilbeau each saw a misplaced sinker distilled into hard-hit balls, and those hard-hit balls were themselves distilled into a two-run dinger. The A’s took a 3-2 lead, and we were going to be left with another one of those games. A game with no run support, that took 3.5 hours, that was wet and cold. In short, a game that made a stadium full of baseball fans long for an offseason when baseball will be no more.
Two innings later, and it was almost finally over. I’m sure some of the fans still at the game were there for the love of the Mariners, and for the love of baseball. I’m equally sure that most of the fans still at the game were there for the post-game fireworks. A’s phenom closer Liam Hendriks jogged in. Hendriks had a sub-2.00 ERA. The Mariners were opening the ninth with hitters 7, 8, and 9. The literal bottom of the order.
Tom Murphy grounded out. Mallex Smith hit a first-pitch single. Dylan Moore struck out, but a wild pitch got Mallex to second base.
Up came Shed Long. He watched a looping curve go low. Hendriks dialed up a 98 MPH fastball. Shed hacked at it and missed. He stepped out, kicked his bat, and stepped back in. Hendriks hucked a 99 MPH fastball. Shed watched it for strike two. One strike away from loss 94 in a rainy, sparse T-Mobile Park.
Hendriks gave Shed another 99 MPH fastball. He barely caught up, fouling it off. Hendriks switched up the next pitch, offering a slider in the dirt. Shed held up, and Mallex took third base. Hendriks took a deep breath, and so did Shed. This game meant something to the A’s, and shouldn’t have meant anything for the Mariners. Hendriks fired another 99 MPH fastball into the zone.
Shed got around on it and hit it into center. Mallex scored. The game was tied.
J.P. somehow worked an even longer at bat than Shed. He eventually got a 99 MPH fastball of his own, and he sawed it off the other way into left field. Shed sprinted 270 feet in seconds, scored, and won the game. What fans were left rose in unison, screaming for Shed, for J.P., and for the Mariners.
Justus Sheffield is not Félix Hernández. Not even close. But the Mariners won his five-inning, one-earned-run start.
The last fourteen years demonstrated in brutal fashion that life is not a storybook. But the last fourteen years ended last night.
Tonight, the Mariners won a game they’ve lost so many times. They won it with Mallex Smith, Shed Long, J.P. Crawford, and Justus Sheffield.
No, it’s not a storybook. But you’d be forgiven for settling in for another story.