'New-look Felix' stymies, surprises Rangers

Hernandez has yet to walk a batter in three starts in 2017

'New-look Felix' stymies, surprises Rangers

SEATTLE -- This might not have been the old Felix Hernandez, the one racking up double-digit strikeouts and leaving hitters shaking their heads. But when the King puts up 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball and notches his third straight game without a walk, well, that works just fine for Mariners manager Scott Servais.

"I like the new-look Felix," Servais said after Hernandez picked up his first win in a 2-1 victory over the Rangers on Friday night. "I'll take the 7 1/3 and keeping them right there and very efficient with his pitches."

While the King's Court was chanting for strikeouts, Hernandez tallied only three K's, but was more than happy to pick up his first win in his past six starts, dating back to last Sept. 10.

Hernandez allowed six hits in improving to 1-1 with a 2.95 ERA.

"He got a few strikeouts tonight, but that's not what was driving him," said Servais. "It was to get us back in the dugout and keep them off the board. Outstanding effort. He's really been locked in. He's got a little chip on his shoulder. We knew it was going to happen and so far the results have been great for him."

Hernandez needed just 89 pitches to get one out into the eighth, but Servais opted for lefty reliever Marc Rzepczynski to face a pair of left-handed hitters after Carlos Gomez's one-out single and the southpaw induced a pair of groundouts to preserve the lead before Edwin Diaz notched his second save.

Hernandez has faced the Rangers a lot over the years and was just 18-23 with a 3.95 ERA in 50 prior meetings going into Friday's game. But he employed a different strategy in this one, relying far more on locating his low-90s fastball when the Rangers expected more of his nasty change and curve.

The changeup can be an efficient strikeout pitch, but veteran teams that learn to lay off it can run up his pitch count. Instead, he pumped strikes in this one and got lots of easy contact.

"That's what I'm doing now, just going deep in game, trying to give us a chance to win," Hernandez said. "Not a lot of strikeouts, but I was around the zone and they swung early and we got a lot of quick outs, so that was big."

Texas manager Jeff Banister acknowledged it wasn't the Hernandez they were expecting.

"He was a little bit different than what he's shown this season," Banister said. "A lot more fastballs. He came out challenging our guys in, off the plate, really trying to stay in on their hands so he could use his secondary stuff.

"He's a very savvy pitcher. That's why he's an ace and has been, and we just couldn't get enough strung together to really mount much of a charge against him. When a guy like that has his stuff and he's on, it makes it very challenging."

Hernandez struggled with his command last year when he had the highest walk rate of his career at 3.8 per nine innings, along with his lowest strikeouts-per-nine at 7.2. But through 18 1/3 innings this season he has 15 strikeouts and has yet to issue a free pass, the first time in his career he's gone three straight starts of five-plus innings with no walks.

"It means a lot," he said. "It means my mechanics are really good. I'm throwing a lot of strikes and that's really good for me. Last year I was walking a lot of people and getting in trouble with that.

"The strikeouts are going to come. You don't have to look for them. Just pitch around the plate, throw a lot of strikes and they'll come. I'm happy with this. If you go deeper in the game, you've got chance to win games so that's good."

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.