Pirates manager Clint Hurdle predicted that it wouldn’t matter how well the Pirates swung the bat if Mariners ace Felix Hernandez did his thing.
For about four batters on Wednesday, Hurdle looked as if he might be wrong. Pittsburgh bolted to a quick lead and had runners on first and second with one out before the game was 20 minutes old.
The door to a big inning was ajar. Hernandez quickly slammed it shut, settling down after a shaky start to lead the Mariners to a 2-1 victory and a split of the brief two-game interleague series.
“I was OK,” Hernandez said. “I didn’t have my very best stuff, but I battled hard ... Luckily, I kept us in the game and we were able to win.”
Hernandez (5-2) struck out five and walked one to improve to 4-0 in his last five starts while shaving his ERA to 1.53. Tom Wilhelmsen worked the ninth for his ninth save.
Pittsburgh’s A.J. Burnett (3-3) was almost as sharp, giving up just two hits over seven innings while striking out nine. Yet he also walked four batters and gave up Montero’s third homer of the season with one out in the seventh.
The shot to the first row of seats in right-center field was a boost for the slumping Montero, who came into the game hitting just .203.
“The kid is working so hard,” Seattle manager Eric Wedge said. “He’s so young and he’s learning so much. I think he’s starting to get to the point where he can put a little more energy into his hitting and not have to worry quite so much about his catching.”
Starling Marte had two hits for Pittsburgh and Andrew McCutchen added an RBI single but the Pirates didn’t muster much after Hernandez found his footing.
“He got some balls up early but then he got into his delivery and that allowed his arm to start working and he executed his pitches,” Wedge said. “He was getting them to take a lot of bad swings.”
The showdown between the two staff aces lived up to its billing. Hernandez entered the game ranked in the top five in the American League in ERA and strikeouts while Burnett came in unbeaten in nearly a month and second in the National League in strikeouts behind New York’s Matt Harvey.
Hernandez’s only miscue came in the first. Starling Marte led off with a double – his 17th lead-off hit this season – then came around to score when McCutchen singled up the middle with one out. Garrett Jones then walked, but Pittsburgh’s promising inning disappeared when Mike McKenry hit into a double-play.
It was the fourth straight game in which the Pirates let a potentially big first inning slip away. Pittsburgh went just 1 for 6 with runners in scoring position.
“It just seems that we’ve got to find a better answer,” Hurdle said. “Maybe it’s our mindset but we’re getting pitched tough. It’s not like it’s chopped liver we’ve been facing.”
Hernandez didn’t botch his reprieve. Pittsburgh only managed to get one runner to third the rest of the way. Jordy Mercer doubled leading off the fifth and advanced to third with one out. Burnett, however, couldn’t square a sacrifice bunt and Marte struck out.
Burnett cruised through the first three innings, needing an economical 32 pitches to retire the first nine batters. Yet his control briefly abandoned him in the fourth and his unfamiliarity with backup catcher McKenry may have cost the Pirates a run.
Michael Saunders and Jason Bay walked leading off the fourth and were on second and third with two outs when Burnett bounced a curveball to home plate that smacked off McKenry – who was catching Burnett for just the second time in the regular season due to a neck injury to starter Russell Martin – and rolled away, allowing Saunders to race home and tie the game.
The wild pitch came after Burnett nearly struck out Dustin Ackley on a 1-2 fastball that appeared to paint the inside corner. Home plate umpire Paul Schrieber ruled it a ball, and seconds later Saunders was sprinting home.
“I thought it was a close pitch,” Burnett said. “I just sometimes think my stuff’s nasty, so sometimes they (umpires) miss it too.”
Burnett had little trouble with one of the worst offenses in the majors until the seventh when Montero homered. Hernandez and Wilhelmsen took care of the rest as the Mariners improved to 8-4 in their last 12 games as they try to bounce back from a horrific start.
All three of Montero’s homers have come in games started and won by Hernandez.
“That’s crazy how things are happening,” Montero said. “I hit a home run, he pitches and we win. It’s unbelievable.”
NOTES: The Pirates released RHP Jonathan Sanchez on Wednesday. The team designated him for assignment last week ... The Mariners are off on Thursday then host Oakland for a weekend series starting Friday. Hisashi Iwakuma (3-1, 1.61) starts for Seattle against Dan Straily (1-0, 5.94) ... Pittsburgh begins a four-game set in New York against the Mets on Thursday. Jeff Locke (3-1, 3.21) faces New York’s Dillon Gee (2-4, 6.16) ... The Pirates called up 2007 second-round pick RHP Duke Welker on Wednesday. Welker was 3-0 with a 0.00 ERA at Triple-A Indianapolis this season.