SEATTLE — Denard Span had faced Felix Hernandez, perhaps the best right-handed pitcher in the game, more than any of his teammates. Friday evening, Span vowed not to place extra pressure on himself. He would hope for mistakes and be prepared to hit them. “I definitely won’t call him King Felix,” Span said prior to first pitch in the Washington Nationals clubhouse. “Maybe ask me after the game. He’s Felix right now.”
The rest of the Nationals also refused to pledge fealty. “Our guys are psyched,” Nationals hitting coach Rick Schu said, standing in the Safeco Field visitors dugout before batting practice. They had to face the runaway American League Cy Young favorite, is how everyone saw it. In their minds, Hernandez had to face them.
Hernandez had never pitched against the Nationals. He had also never given up four home runs in a single start. The Nationals pummeled Hernandez as he had never been before in a 8-3 victory over the Seattle Mariners. Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond and Wilson Ramos all smashed homers off Hernandez in the first four innings, four of the 10 hits the Nationals ripped as they scored five runs off Hernandez in seven innings.
The Nationals added two more homers off ex-Nationals reliever Joe Beimel, one from Bryce Harper — the 50th of his career — and another from Ramos. They matched a team-high for homers, blasting six for the fourth time since baseball returned to Washington, an emphatic response to the three-game sweep they endured in Philadelphia.
“I don’t think it was necessarily a matter of what [Hernandez] did,” Desmond said. “It was more what we did. We brought a good approach to the plate today, and we were able to fight off some tough pitches. When he was making good pitches down in the zone, we forced him to get the ball up. We were able to make him pay.”
On days Hernandez pitches at home, the Mariners sell tickets to the King’s Court, three sections to the left of the left field foul pole. The fans sitting there receive yellow T-shirts and yellow placards with a blue “K.” They chant “Let’s Go Felix!” When a hitter reaches two strikes, they shake their “K” signs. The Nationals stunned them into silence. Hernandez faced 21 batters before his first — and only — strikeout: Adam LaRoche took a third-strike sinker at the shins, a call that bordered on mercy.
Hernandez had not surrendered more than four earned runs in a start all season, and he only allowed more than three once. He entered with a 13-4 record and a 2.07 ERA. The Nationals treated his pitches like batting practice.
“You can’t figure these things out sometimes,” Werth said. “Sometimes you get the best guys out there, and you see him good. And sometimes you got a guy that you run into that guys have been hitting good, and you don’t see him good. You can’t figure these things sometimes. He’s a great pitcher. Everybody knows that. We were running good today.”
Jordan Zimmermann silenced the Mariners, giving the Nationals wins in all six of his August starts. He yielded two runs in a sloppy first inning, but he found his slider as the night wore on and did not allow another run. Zimmermann walked one and struck out eight in six innings, overwhelming the Mariners with his slider and 94-mph fastball.
“It’s like, okay, we understand Felix throws good and he’s a good pitcher,” Manager Matt Williams said before the game. “We can read the stats like everybody else. But it’s hard for them to face Jordan, too, because he’s pretty good. That’s kind of the same way on both sides. If we do things right, we’ve got a chance to beat him.”
Zimmermann earned his 10th win and maintained a 2.93 ERA. With one month remaining, Zimmermann has thrown 165 2 / 3 innings, right where he wants to be.
“I feel better than I’ve ever felt,” Zimmermann said. “I feel strong — no issues with my arm or anything. So far, so good.”
Among the Nationals in the starting lineup, only Span, LaRoche and Asdrubal Cabrera had faced Hernandez. Informed that he went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts in his only game against Hernandez, LaRoche replied, “So I actually put one in play?”
The rest of the Nationals entered the night with some dread, but mostly competitive curiosity and eagerness. “Whenever you get an opportunity to face someone of that caliber, who’s highly talented and has done so great in this game, you want to step in there and see what it’s like,” Rendon said. “Then down the road, you can say, ‘Yeah, I faced that guy.’ ”
Rendon would do more than face him. He went 4 for 4 with a walk, a double and the homer he blasted in his first at-bat, when he came to the plate with one out. He knew Hernandez favored his change-up, and Rendon wanted to be aggressive before Hernandez could get to the pitch. “See the ball up,” Rendon told himself.
Hernandez threw him a first-pitch, 93-mph sinker at the letters. Rendon blasted it into the stands beyond center field.
“I got lucky,” Rendon said, flashing a wide grin.
Zimmermann lost the 1-0 lead in the bottom of the inning, starting when Dustin Ackley roped a triple off the center field fence. A single off LaRoche’s glove and another infield sent the Mariners ahead, 2-1.
Desmond and Harper both whacked singles in a scoreless second, which ended on two hard-hit outs. Hernandez got two quick outs in the third, too, and seemed to be settling in.
Werth’s career spanned the entirety of Hernandez’s tenure, but they had never crossed paths. Werth grounded to short in his first at-bat. He walked to the plate for his second with two outs in the third, after Rendon barely checked his swing on a 3-2 slider in the dirt to draw a walk.
“You look forward to at-bats off guys like that,” Werth said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Werth fell behind, 0-1, and Hernandez chucked a slider that dove from his thighs to his knees. Werth dropped his back knee and hammered the pitch to left center field. The ball landed four rows over the fence. The homer sent the Nationals ahead, 3-2.
Desmond led off the fourth with one of the most remarkable at-bats of the Nationals’ season. He fell behind, 0-2, a count Hernandez had reached 763 times in his career. Once he had a batter 0-2, he had struck out 430 of them and allowed only six home runs.
Desmond made it seven. He took a ball and fouled away five of seven pitches, staying alive. “I was trying to get something up in the zone,” Desmond said. “Just trying to let the ball get deep, keep on fighting him.”
On the 10th pitch of the at-bat, Hernandez threw him a high fastball. Desmond hit a laser into the left field seats — “a scud,” Werth said. The blast also gave Desmond his 81st RBI, a career high.
“He’s got a pretty deadly split-finger change-up that he throws,” said Harper, who singled twice against Hernandez. “We were able to lay off it and got some hits when we needed it, some huge homers early.”
The Nationals were not done. Two batters later, Ramos hit a towering home run to left field off the scoreboard. The Nationals had pummelled the pitcher called King in stunning fashion. Even after they game, they still called him Felix.
“It was a tough outing,” Hernandez said. “I couldn’t get out of the middle of the plate for four innings. I was up. And I got crushed.”