August 21, 2012
Before Felix was King
When Seattle right-hander Felix Hernandez spun a perfect game against the Rays last Wednesday night, he became the third pitcher in Mariners history to notch a no-hitter. Randy Johnson was the first, in June 1990, against the Tigers. Chris Bosio followed that nearly three years later against the Red Sox.
One of my favorite Bill James toys is his Game Score, which attempts to measure a starting pitcher's effectiveness in a single game on a scale (roughly) of 0 to 100. Like any other tool, it isn't perfect, but it provides a useful gauge. When you get past 90, you're in elite territory. Both Johnson's and Bosio's no-hitters scored 89, the former because Johnson walked too many (six) and the latter because Bosio struck out too few (four). Still, a no-no is a no-no, and there is no-no denying the greatness of their performances.
I just want to make that clear, because we aren't going to talk about them. Instead, we are going to look at the 90-plus Game Scores in Mariners history. There have been 22 such games, most by familiar names:
Raise your hand if you thought Moore would have more than Langston. Now put your hand down, Mrs. Moore.
Beattie did it first, on September 27, 1983, against the Royals. On the final Tuesday of the Mariners' seventh season, the future big-league general manager spun a one-hitter (darn that U.L. Washington and his pesky toothpick!) for a team that would lose 102 games. Nearly 8,000 people saw Beattie's masterpiece at the shiny new Kingdome.
Hernandez's Game Score for the perfecto was 99, tied for highest in team history. More about that in a moment, but first, here's the aggregate line of those 22 Game Scores. This doesn't mean anything, but it looks awesome:
A couple of things stand out for me. First is that slugging percentage. There were four extra-base hits in those 22 games, all doubles. Moore allowed two to the White Sox on August 14, 1988 (to Dan Pasqua in the fourth and Mark Salas in the seventh). Hernandez allowed two to the Yankees on June 30, 2010 (to Mark Teixeira in the fourth and Colin Curtis in the fifth). The remaining 46 hits were singles.
The other thing that grabs my attention is the unearned run. Or the 20-0 record. Or both. Okay, it's two things, but they're related. What happened in those other two games where the pitcher didn't get a win?
As it happens, before Hernandez's perfect game, these were the two highest Game Scores in club history. They also resulted in Mariners losses.
Hard Luck Hanson
The first thing I notice about this game—before we even get to the pitching—Is that although it occurred more than 20 years ago, it features a Hall of Famer and a currently active player. The Hall of Famer is Oakland left fielder Rickey Henderson. The active player? Mariners shortstop Omar Vizquel.
Henderson went 0-for-4, Vizquel went 0-for-3.
This was a dominant A's team with a lethal offense led by Henderson (who would win the AL MVP), Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, and Dave Henderson. Oakland topped the AL with a 108 OPS+ and finished third in runs scored with 733. The A's won the pennant in 1990 behind that potent offense, but they could be stopped on occasion. They were shut out 12 times, fell victim to the sixth of Nolan Ryan's seven career no-hitters, and forgot to show up for the World Series. But for the most part, this was a team that could hit and score runs.
In this game, Hanson retired the first 10 batters he faced. With one out in the fourth, Oakland third baseman Carney Lansford singled to left-center and advanced to second on a wild pitch. Canseco then grounded out, advancing Lansford to third, but Dave Henderson struck out swinging on a full count to end the threat.
The A's wouldn't get another scoring opportunity against Hanson. Felix Jose was hit by a pitch the next inning but never made it past first base. Their next baserunner came with one out in the 10th, when Dave Henderson grounded a single between short and third. He was promptly erased on a 6-4-3 double play off the bat of McGwire that ended the inning and Hanson's evening.
After Seattle threatened in the top of the 11th (Ken Griffey Jr. doubled with one out, but Alvin Davis and Jeffrey Leonard couldn't do anything against Stewart), closer Mike Schooler entered. He retired leadoff batter Jose, then coughed up three straight singles to Terry Steinbach, Walt Weiss, and the immortal Doug Jennings, whose line drive just inside the right-field foul line on a 1-2 hanging slider plated the contest's lone run.
Jennings was hitting .198/.258/.272 when manager Tony LaRussa sent him out to bat for second baseman Mike Gallego (LaRussa initially planned to use Ron Hassey but changed his mind for fear that the veteran catcher might ground into a double play). In 380 big-league plate appearances, Jennings compiled a .202/.302/.317 line. But on a Wednesday evening in Oakland, he hit a single that made his team a winner.
Weiss, who contributed to the game-winning rally, had high praise for Hanson after the contest:
Hanson was nearly unhittable today. He's got three great pitches - a fastball, a curveball and a change-up. He could throw any pitch, any time for a strike.
McGwire, who went 0-for-4, likewise complimented the Seattle right-hander:
His breaking ball just falls off the table. It seemed like he didn't throw a ball in the middle of the plate the whole day.
Although Hanson didn't get the victory, skipper Jim Lefebvre added to the verbal lovefest:
I'm proud as hell of my guy. He gave us enough. You can't ask him to give any more. But again, you have to take your hat off to Dave Stewart. The guy finds a way.
I was talking to (home plate umpire) Rich Garcia on the way back to the clubhouse, and he was telling me Erik had probably as good stuff he's ever seen in his years in the big leagues. Now that's quite a compliment.
Quoth Hanson's teammate, Leonard:
That was a very special game, as special as a no-hitter. You're talking about two teams stopped dead today, not just one. We didn't know when to swing, when not to swing, when to hold up, when not to hold up.
Very special, indeed.
Neither figured in the decision, with the forgettable Joe Grahe defeating the equally forgettable Calvin Jones after the latter coughed up a single to Luis Sojo in the 13th that plated Ron Tingley. Seattle went down quietly in the bottom half, with Ken Griffey Jr. striking out against Steve Frey to end the game.
This is a fun one because it features players you might not associate with these teams and/or roles:
Seattle jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first on a two-out double by Parrish that scored Griffey. Then Johnson dominated, except for the fourth, the only inning in which he failed to strike out at least one batter. With one out, Brooks singled to right. Then, with Gary Gaetti at the plate, this happened:
Fielder's Choice; Brooks Scores/Adv on E4 (throw)/No RBI/unER; Gaetti to 2B
Wait, what? Here's how the Orange County Register's Matt McHale described it:
Gaetti grounded to third baseman Mike Blowers. Boone, the rookie trying to unseat Harold Reynolds as the regular second baseman, took the throw, but was off the bag. His relay to first rolled into the Angels dugout and Brooks was given two bases on the error.
Turns out there was drama is this game from the start. From McHale's article:
The first inning also was notable for Johnson's first pitch, a fastball that sailed over the head of leadoff hitter Luis Polonia. Unlike the night before, both benches didn't empty, but Johnson was given a warning by plate umpire Jim Evans.
And how did Langston feel about pitching in front of said crowd?
It's tough to see when September comes around and there is no one here. There isn't much to do except play the rest of the season. I still think about it. I had some of my greatest memories here. But now it just looks like the same old thing.
In my visit to Seattle earlier this summer, Langston threw out the ceremonial first pitch before one of the games I attended. He received a warm welcome, and his former team won in extra innings, although there were more (or at least more vocal) Red Sox fans in attendance. Whether that qualifies as “the same old thing” is open to interpretation.
* * *
Hanson and Johnson deserved better than what they got in their games. That is kind of a metaphor for many things in life, although such metaphors lie beyond the scope of this article. The important point is that now, thanks to King Felix's perfect game, the best pitching performance in Mariners history also coincides with a team victory.
In a season defined by the developmental failure of Justin Smoak, the departure of icon Ichiro Suzuki, and a boatload of losses, it's nice for a team and its fans to latch onto something as a point of pride. Felix Hernandez's dominant season and dominant game allow them to do just that. And maybe in the process folks can celebrate the efforts of Hanson and Johnson, who were less fortunate despite pitching gems that should not be forgotten.
Hanson/Stewart game quotes are from an article by the San Francisco Chronicle's Mark Camps and an uncredited Associated Press piece that appeared in the Chicago Tribune.