PITTSBURGH — For Jesus Montero, it has been, so far, a season of reduced playing time and increased scrutiny, one that has seen his status as a mega-prospect called into question.
But on Wednesday, in an intense matchup of two aces on top of their game, Montero made the difference in a hard-fought Seattle win.
It was Montero’s seventh-inning homer, one of just two hits allowed by Pittsburgh’s A.J. Burnett, that lifted the Mariners to a 2-1 victory at PNC Park.
It also made a winner out of Felix Hernandez, who pitched valiantly for eight innings but seemed headed for another of his frequent no-decisions because of a lack of run support. Montero’s homer, on the first pitch he saw from Burnett with one out in the seventh, broke a 1-1 tie.
“Oh, my God — I was really happy,” Hernandez said. “He came up big. That was a big play, too. I was happy for him.”
Montero drove the ball to right-center, which has always been regarded as his prime power spot but one that has been elusive this season.
“That’s fine. That’s the way I like to hit,” Montero said, who entered the at-bat with a .197 average and had lost his full-time status to catcher to Kelly Shoppach.
“That’s my approach. I’ve been practicing that and I try to do that every single time, but it’s hard. Pitchers are good.”
Burnett was particularly good — he took a no-hitter into the fifth until Endy Chavez broke it up with an infield single. Burnett wound up striking out nine while displaying the same sort of frantic movement on his pitches that marks Hernandez.
“I was looking for a fastball,” Montero said. “He pitched me really good that first at-bat. Second at-bat he went ball, ball, ball. That third at-bat I was looking for fastball and he left it down the middle. And I hit it good.”
All three of Montero’s homers this year have come with Hernandez on the mound. In fact, those two fellow Venezuelans have built a nice rapport, with Montero catching all but one of Felix’s starts this season. Hernandez has a 5-1 record and 1.03 earned-run average in those seven starts with Montero behind the plate, and a 1.84 ERA in 13 career games throwing to Montero.
“That’s crazy what’s happening,” Montero said. “He pitches, I hit a homer. He wins. Unbelievable. Everybody knows he’s talented. He’s so good. Everything today was working — curveball, changeup, slider, fastball, sinker, everything.”
Hernandez, however, rated his stuff as merely “OK — not good as normally, but it was good.”
He noted that Montero “is maturing a lot. Behind the plate, he’s doing a lot better. He’s pretty good back there.”
In fact, Montero threw out his first base runner of the season after 15 successful attempts against him. It was an odd play in the eighth inning in which Starling Marte stopped halfway to second and was caught in a rundown.
The Pirates got their only run off Hernandez in the first inning. The pesky Marte reached on a leadoff double and came home on a one-out single by Andrew McCutchen.
Over the next seven innings, Hernandez blanked Pittsburgh on four hits — one in the infield — before turning it over to closer Tom Wilhelmsen in the ninth for his ninth save in as many attempts.
“In the first inning, they got me pretty good,” Hernandez said. “I left a couple of pitches down the middle. I knew it was going to be hard because A.J. is nasty. After the first, I had to get my command back and throw strikes, and that’s what I did. If you don’t have your best stuff, you have to go out there and fight, and find different ways to get people out.”
Montero felt the rocky first inning motivated Hernandez.
“He just gets a little mad because he doesn’t like that,” Montero said. “After that he got going and everything was fine after that. It’s fun to catch him. Whoever hits him, it’s weird.
“Everybody is out. That’s how I feel.”
Hernandez is in a major groove. Over his past five starts, he is 4-0 with a 0.71 ERA, 40 strikeouts and only three walks.
And the Mariners hope this will help get Montero into a groove as well.
“It was a big boost, and it should be a huge boost,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “It’s something hopefully you can work off. You have to feel good about it for yourself, and more importantly for your teammates.”
The Mariners tied the score in the fourth without benefit of a hit. Michael Saunders led off with one of his three walks, moved to second on a wild pitch, took third on a ground out and scored on another wild pitch by Burnett.
The Mariners finished their trip to Toronto and Pittsburgh with a 3-2 record.
“Our guys are fighting hard, man,” Wedge said. “You know every pitch could be the ballgame.”
And one pitch to Montero proved him right.