Felix Hernandez and Yu Darvish clash in early duel of Cy Young contenders
As far as must-see games in April go, Wednesday night's tilt between the Mariners and Rangers certainly fit the bill. On the mound for Seattle: Felix Hernandez. Opposing him for Texas: Yu Darvish. It's the third time the two have faced each other since Darvish came to MLB, and the first time since July 14, 2012, that they've squared off. The previous two meetings between Darvish and Hernandez had been all Felix, with the Venezuelan right-hander throwing 17 combined innings with one run allowed, two walks and 19 strikeouts vs. Darvish's seven earned runs and 10 walks in 10 1/3 innings. On Wednesday, both pitchers brought their A-game, but neither came away with the win, as Fernando Rodney blew a 2-1 lead in the ninth and Texas walked off with a 3-2 win.
Seattle got to Darvish early thanks to a new addition to its lineup. On the first pitch of his first at-bat of the season, Mariners designated hitter and recent call-up Nick Franklin ripped a line drive all the way to the right-centerfield fence, motoring around the bases for a triple. Darvish got Justin Smoak swinging on a high fastball, but followed that with a five-pitch walk to Dustin Ackley that featured some tight calls in the strike zone. With runners on the corners, catcher Mike Zunino lined a ball straight up the middle for an RBI single. Centerfielder Abraham Almonte followed by golfing a Darvish fastball on the outside corner to leftfield, giving Hernandez an early 2-0 lead.
Using a low 90s sinker he threw to both sides of the plate, a slider and a changeup that burrowed into the ground, Hernandez tore through the Rangers' lineup, allowing just four hits and a walk against nine strikeouts. Texas had its chances, including a two-out double in the second inning by Alex Rios and back-to-back two-out singles in the third by Shin-Soo Choo and Elvis Andrus. Both times, Hernandez stranded the runners, getting Prince Fielder to ground out in the second and Rios to strike out looking on a 92 mph fastball on the outside corner in the fourth. Hernandez retired 10 straight at one point from the fourth inning through the seventh. But a leadoff triple in the eighth by Leonys Martin ended Hernandez's night at 96 pitches, and the Mariners' bullpen couldn't hold on, with Charlie Furbush allowing the inherited runner to score, and Rodney giving up two runs in the ninth on two hits, a walk, an error and a wild pitch.
Despite not getting the win, Wednesday's start was another brilliant outing by Hernandez, who has now allowed just six earned runs through his first 28 1/3 innings. King Felix has been downright unhittable, with 39 strikeouts to three walks and only eight extra-base hits allowed. Against Texas, he went sinker and four-seam fastball heavy, topping out at 94 mph on both pitches, and mixing in the changeup where needed. That fastball-changeup combo has worked well for Hernandez so far this season; going into Wednesday's game, opposing batters were hitting .182 on his four-seamer and .061 on his changeup. That latter pitch has been particularly devastating, getting a swing and a miss a staggering 40 percent of the time.
As good as Hernandez was, Darvish was up to the task. The two runs in the second inning aside, the Japanese right-hander attacked the Mariners with a dizzying array of pitches, relying most often on his slider and four-seamer, but mixing in a few splitters and cutters to keep batters honest. The slider in particular was Darvish's go-to pitch; after throwing it only 22 times total in his first two starts, Darvish threw it 39 times against Seattle. Though the RBI single by Zunino came on a slider that simply hung in the middle of the plate, it was Darvish's most effective pitch on the night, as he pounded the strike zone with it and got plenty of swings, albeit few misses. As good as he's been, though, Darvish hasn't gotten any help from his offense to start the year. The Rangers haven't scored a single run in his 22 innings on the mound. Regardless of the result, both teams have to be happy with what their aces gave them. With the way both Hernandez and Darvish have started the season, expect to see them popping up soon on a lot of early short-lists for AL Cy Young consideration.