Playing in front of the Cheney Stadium crowd for the first time, Felix Hernandez battled through a tough first inning Tuesday night to produce his third strong start of the season.
The Rainiers didn't give Hernandez much help on the scoreboard, stranding 11 runners and collecting just one two-out RBI, a run-scoring double off the bat of shortstop Michael Morse.
"We just didn't come up with the big hits when we needed to, that's all," said Rainiers manager Dan Rohn. "We had plenty of opportunities the first five innings to score runs, we just didn't get it done. We have to come up with a better effort there."
The 2005 version of the Rainiers is somewhat different than the team fielded a year ago. This year's roster is bit younger and includes many players who are experiencing Triple-A baseball for the first time. That fact begins, but doesn't end with Tuesday night's 19-year-old starting pitcher. Offensively, things just haven't been consistent, yet.
"We created situations where we've had (runners) on base, and we've got to get them in," said Rohn. "That's part of the learning process with these young guys, but we've still got to execute and we just didn't do that."
Sacramento got to King Felix in the first after Hernandez gave up a single to Rivercats' leadoff man Jermaine Clark, walked Matt Watson and gave up a single to Bobby Smith, loading the bases with nobody out.
Hernandez would walk in a run when his 3-1 fastball missed away to Dan Johnson, but the right-hander executed tremendous damage control, getting out of the inning with just one more run crossing the plate – a sacrifice fly to right field by Shawn Garrett. Adam Morrissey then grounded into an inning-ending double-play, 3-6-1, as Felix moved like a cat to cover first on the play.
"I think he was just a little excited," said Rohn. "First start at home and all the hype that's been going on. I think he just overthrew at times and got himself in trouble. He managed to get out of it, settled into a real nice rythmn, mixed all of his pitches well."
Following the double-play, Hernandez took the ball out of his glove and slammed it into the turf as he walked off the field. But this was not a negative emotional outburst.
"No, no, no, not at all," said Hernandez, when asked if the action was out of frustration following the last out of the first inning. "I was just happy to get out of there."
Trailing 2-0, Hernandez put it into cruise control for the next four innings. OVERDRIVE might have been a more appropriate term.
The ace mowed through the next four innings without much threat from Sacramento, keeping them at bay with a nasty mix of a four-seam fastball, curve and change-up. Hernandez finished the night with eight punchouts in six innings, five by way of the change, as he kept the Rivercats off balance and unable to sit on the fastball.
"I used all of my pitches pretty good after the first," said Hernandez, who received a visit from pitching Rafael Chaves in that opening inning. "(Chaves) just said to calm down and concentrate and throw my pitches. After that first, I felt pretty good with everything. My fastball, my curve, my change, it was all working."
Hernandez surrendered a run in his final inning on a walk and a run-scoring double by Dan Johnson.
After all was said and done, Hernandez had thrown 99 pitches, his highest total of the season, and like any big-time competitor, didn't want to leave the game.
"I wanted to go back out, but they (Rohn, Chaves) said no," Hernandez said with a big smile.
Tacoma's offense was limited to six hits behind the pitching of Rivercats starter Dan Meyer and two relievers. But the Rainiers drew eight walks, five from Meyer, and couldn't do anything to drive in the ducks that sat stale out on the Cheney Stadium pond.
Other than Morse's RBI double in the third inning, the Rainiers were held to a Justin Leone solo home run in the seventh off former M's farmhand Tim Harikkala, a no-doubter to left-center on a 3-2 pitch.
Hernandez ended the night with six innings pitched, allowing three earned runs, four hits, four walks and eight strikeouts. Hernandez is now 1-2 on the season with a 1.59 ERA in 17 innings of work.
Lefty Making Transition: Southpaw reliever Jared Thomas is in his first year in Triple-A, and is showing his skipper he can pitch. Thomas entered Tuesday's game with a 3.00 ERA in four appearances. The 24-year-old has had some early-season command issues (six walks in six innings), and has allowed nine hits, but he's been able to get out of jams thus far.
Thomas relieved Hernandez on Tuesday and went the final three innings, surrendering a run on three hits, walking two and striking out three.
"Little bit of aggression, little excitedness to a point," said Rohn of Thomas' outing. "He's got a tendency to fall behind, but he battles back in each at-bat."
Thomas could serve in many roles in the Rainiers' bullpen, seeing time at any point in any given game.
"He's going to be a long man and a setup guy," said Rohn. "He's not a left-handed specialist, he's a guy who can get both left-handers and right-handers out."
Snelling Sits, But Don't Panic: Chris Snelling was kept out of the lineup by the Rainiers on Tuesday, but not due to any injury of any kind. Snelling will receive regular rest to ease into his full comeback in which the 23-year-old hopes gets him back to playing the outfield again, as soon as possible.
"That's what I want, ultimately," said Snelling. "But right now I'm just going to hit. My knee feels as good as it is probably ever going to feel. I have no restrictions, except when I try to stop. Running is fine, it's when I'm trying to slow down when it shows a little bit of soreness."
Snelling is expected to be the Rainiers starting DH on Wednesday versus Sacramento.
Delucchi Delivers: Dustin Delucchi has a seven game hitting streak going and is 10-for-31 during the stretch. The reserve outfielder is starting every third day, as regular starter, Jamal Strong, receives rest to help keep his knee in good health. Delucchi is hitting .316 on the season with a home run and three RBI.
Felix Hernandez Pitch Chart: In Tuesday's start, Hernandez threw 57 of his 99 pitches for strikes. In his six innings of work, he threw 28 curve balls, 14 for strikes, and 23 change-ups, 15 for strikes. Five of his eight strikeouts came on the change, two on the fastball and one on a wicked curve ball.
Next?: Felix's next start is tentatively scheduled for Sunday, April 24, in Colorado Springs. The Sky Sox are the Triple-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies.
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