It seems pretty clear that the American League West has become a Bizarro version of itself this season. How else can one explain what happened Friday night in Houston, when the first-place Astros, who entered the game on a seven-game losing streak, scored eight runs off Mariners ace Felix Hernandez before he could get the second out of the first inning? Hernandez was replaced by Joe Beimel after recording just one out, the worst outing of his big league career in Seattle's 10-0 loss.
Only once before in his 11 major league seasons had Hernandez failed to complete three innings in a start, and that came way back in 2007. Hernandez left his start on April 18, 2007 after recording just one out due to tightness in his pitching elbow which resulted in a 26-day stint on the disabled list. Hernandez did have a worse start according to game score on August 28, 2013, but that merely reveals game score’s weakness in measuring poor starts, as it’s obvious which of the two lines listed below was worse. Hernandez just didn’t hang around long enough Friday night to give up enough hits to get his game score down any lower. The below are the only single-digit game scores of Hernandez’s career:
8/28/13: 3 IP, 11 H, 9 R, 8 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 1 HR (Game score: 4)
6/12/15: 1/3 IP, 5 H, 8 R, 8 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 2 HR (Game score: 8)
Felix Hernandez is the 2nd-ever Mariners pitcher to allow 8+ ER while retiring at most 1 batter. The other: Jose Mesa 5/28/2000, in relief.— High Heat Stats MLB (@HighHeatStats) June 13, 2015
So how did this happen? As you might expect, a little bit of everything went wrong for Hernandez. His supporting defense was poor, home plate umpire Mike Estabrook’s strike zone was tight, and Hernandez’s changeup and location were ineffective. All that left the door wide open for the Astros’ lineup, which took full advantage.
Hernandez’s troubles started when his manager, Lloyd McClendon, wrote 37-year-old Willie Bloomquist’s name in the lineup at shortstop. It was just Bloomquist’s fifth start at shortstop this season and 25th in the last three years combined and the ball found the veteran utility man right away. On an 0-2 count, Astros leadoff man Jose Altuve hit a ground ball to Bloomquist who was pulled around into the hole on the right-handed Altuve. Rather than charge the ball hit by the American League leader in stolen bases both this year and last, Bloomquist let it come to him and Altuve beat his throw easily for an infield single that should have been an out. Hernandez then walked rookie Preston Tucker on four pitches, the last of which was only borderline low, and fell behind George Springer 2-0, prompting a visit from catcher Mike Zunino.
Hernandez’s first pitch after the chat was a hanging changeup that Springer laced the opposite way down the right-field line for an RBI hit that pushed Tucker to third. His next pitch was a fastball that Evan Gattis chopped in front of the plate. Hernandez made a nice reaching grab to his left on the ball, but his throw home to attempt to cut off Preston at the plate was twisting and off-balance and clanked off Zunino’s foot allowing both Preston and Springer to score and Gattis to reach second on what was ruled a fielder’s choice plus an error on Hernandez.
At that point it was 3–0 Astros after just 11 pitches. He then fell behind Colby Rasmus 2–0, prompting a visit from pitching coach Rick Waits and his outstanding mustache. Waits was no more help than Zunino as Hernandez wound up issuing a full-count walk to Rasmus on another close pitch, bringing up Carlos Correa for the first home plate appearance of his career.
Correa, who would hit his second major league home run off Beimel later in the game, swung and missed at the second pitch he saw from Hernandez, a changeup running inside. That was Hernandez’s 19th pitch and the first swung on and missed by an Astros hitter on the night. Four pitches later, Hernandez got the call on a fastball on the outer half for strike three on Correa. For a moment, it looked like the King would work out of this early mess, but that would prove to be the only out he would get in the game. His first pitch to the next batter, Luis Valbuena was a changeup low and away that Valbuena swung over. The next pitch was another changeup in roughly the same spot but a little higher and a little more over the plate. Valbuena promptly deposited it in the Astros bullpen for a three-run home run to make it 6–0.
Next up was Chris Carter, who saw three straight sinkers in the same spot, the third of which he pulled through the shortstop hole just under Bloomquist’s diving try for a single (given that the slow-footed Carter was running, one has to wonder if Brad Miller turns that ball into an out). Next up was Jason Castro, who went to 1-1 on a pair of pitches away before getting a belly-high fastball on the outside half which he hit down the left-field line for a two-run opposite-field home run. That pushed the score to 8–0 and ended Hernandez’s night after 31 pitches.
That’s how the Astros, who had scored three or fewer runs in seven of their last eight games and four in their last three games combined, scored eight runs against one of the best pitchers in baseball.
It’s worth noting, however, that, while this was indeed the worst start of Hernandez’s career, it wasn’t his first disaster start this season, or even this month. Two turns ago he gave up seven runs in 4 2/3 innings to the Yankees. Even with a strong start against the Rays in between, he has now allowed 16 runs in 12 innings in his last three starts combined while walking ten men, more than he walked in five starts in May. Given that this outing wasn’t all bad luck—Felix hung his share of pitches, missed location, and his changeup was inconsistent at best—one can’t simply brush it off as a fluke or an off day. His next start, likely to come at home against the Giants on Wednesday, will bear close watching.