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On August 5, 2005, Baseball Prospectus published the following feature on some random Mariners game, chosen that week for Jonah Keri's Prospectus Game of the Week feature. Okay, not quite some random game. Felix Hernandez was making his first ever start in Seattle that day.
To the 529,161 Seattleites who didn't make it to
Naturally, your intrepid Game of the Week correspondent was there, in you-only-live-once splurge box seats, 30 rows up and just to the third-base side of home plate. Joined by Mariner fan deluxe Derek Zumsteg, we witnessed what could one day be looked back upon as a slice of history.
Gather 'round. You're now entering the Court of King Felix.
LF Shannon Stewart 2B Nick Punto C Joe Mauer DH Matt LeCroy RF Jacque Jones CF Lew Ford 1B Justin Morneau 3B Terry Tiffee SS Jason Bartlett
Hardly inspiring, and a lineup further weakened by the loss of
Working on a strict pitch limit of 85 in his first start at Detroit last week, Hernandez gave up a run, two hits and two walks before recording an out. He settled in after that, though, yielding just two runs (one earned), three hits and two walks all told. Hernandez struck out four and allowed zero flyballs. Having fanned more than a batter an inning throughout his minor league career, with filthy groundball rates to boot, the M's felt he was ready for the bigs, never mind the fact that he was the first teenage pitcher to crack the bigs since
From the start, it was clear that Hernandez's stuff can hang with anyone's. His first three pitches to Stewart, leading off: 97-mph fastball taken for strike one, 98-mph fastball whiffed for strike two, 83-mph change-up drawing weak contact fouled off. On another off-speed pitch, this one a curve, Stewart tapped the ball toward
One of the subplots revolving around any young pitcher is his ability to work his way out of jams. There's a psychological element to be sure: Hernandez is nearly two years shy of legal drinking age, and he's going to face elite players like
RF Ichiro Suzuki 2B Willie Bloomquist DH Raul Ibanez 1B Richie Sexson 3B Adrian Beltre CF Jeremy Reed SS Yuniesky Betancourt LF Chris Snelling C Wiki Gonzalez
Directly behind the Twins in AL runs scored? The Mariners, who lead only last-place Kansas City in runs scored. Ichiro!'s leadoff, opposite-field double would prove the only extra-base hit, and one of only two hits period for the Mariners until the 7th. Since we've already covered the M's offensive woes and
Top of the 2nd,
It's Hernandez's second big league start, he's sure to be on another strict pitch count, and we've just completed the 2nd inning. I'm already cursing Beltre for letting that leadoff nubber by Stewart go by for a hit–it's hard to imagine anyone getting any more.
After one of the four innings in which the Mariners send the minimum three batters to the plate, the Twins come back in the top of the 3rd for more punishment. Morneau takes a 95-mph fastball for strike one. A hard curve leaves him with his bat on his shoulder for strike two. Unable to pull Hernandez's heat–I counted three balls that were hit hard and pulled off Hernandez all night, fair or foul–Morneau flies out to left for the first out.
(This seems like as good a place as any to point you to some cool photos taken by Mariner fan Erik Myhre last night. There are some great zoom shots of Hernandez's pitching motion, as well as a montage of his strike/ball totals during the game and other fun tidbits. You can check it out by clicking here.)
4th inning: Stewart grounds out to third. Punto goes around on an 0-2 check-swing, but Hernandez doesn't get the call. Doesn't matter–he strikes him out on a change the very next pitch. Mauer lines out to center. Through four, Hernandez has thrown just 52 pitches, 37 for strikes. Just two balls have left the infield. The punchless M's have done nothing too, though, making it a scoreless tie heading to the 5th.
Finally, a true test. LeCroy starts the 5th with a solid first-pitch single over third. The Safeco crowd isn't as rabid as you'll find in some other stadiums, with plenty of casual fans who may be vaguely or not at all aware of Felix Hernandez (though plenty of other teams bring in plenty of casual fans, as they must if they're to reach the kind of gaudy attendance numbers the M's have pulled in over the last few years). But there's been a definite buzz running through the stadium all game long, with King Felix coronators and who-he fans joining together to gawk at the obvious phenom on the mound. LeCroy's leadoff hit–and the Jones single that follows to make it first and second, none out–suddenly jolt the entire throng upright. It's a random Tuesday night in a lost season for the Mariners, but 30,000-plus are pleading for Hernandez to get through this.
Ford's bunting, as my run-expectation table-obsessed self lets out a derisive snort. After fouling off the first attempt, Ford pushes a decent bunt to the left of the mound. Hernandez pounces on it, wheels and in one motion fires a perfect strike to Beltre for the out. That's it–that's who he reminds you of.
He's also not out of the woods yet, especially after falling behind 2-0 to Morneau. Reaching back for something extra, he guns a 97-mph chest-high heater past Morneau's bat for strike one. But after missing to go to 3-1, Hernandez faces his first true crisis of the game. Reaching deeper into his bag of tricks, he pulls out a nasty, 95-mph sinker that Morneau taps foul. With the crowd now standing and cheering, Hernandez throws another fastball a little high and off the plate by Morneau for strike three. But on 0-2 to Tiffee, a routine grounder to Beltre becomes trouble when the third baseman's throw pulls Sexson off the bag.
How does King Felix fare under the gun? The first pitch is hit to his right, and Hernandez again bounds off the mound to make the play and kill the Twins' rally. Huge ovation–it's clear now that we're witnessing something special.
Pitch limits are sure to become an issue soon, or so it would seem. Through five Hernandez has thrown 67 pitches, an outrageous 48 (72%) of them for strikes. After 1-2-3 innings in both the 6th and 7th, his tally's at just 86. The Mariners finally break through for a run in the bottom of the 7th. After a two-out double by
When Hernandez comes back out for the 8th, another buzz washes over the crowd. If he can get through one inning, Hernandez can turn a lead over to the very reliable
Though Hernandez's performance (8 IP, 5 H, 0 BB, 0 R, 6 K, 94 pitches) sent the crowd home giddy and excited, there's a lot to be said for seeing a boring Felix over the next five to 15 years in Seattle. With a devastating arsenal of pitches at his disposal, Hernandez can choose the
An off-hand remark I make to Derek, that Hernandez evokes the image of Maddux, spliced with
Either way, we'll all be watching.
Set Your TiVos and VCRs: The next Prospectus Game of the Week happens Saturday, Aug. 13, 7 p.m. ET, as the San Francisco Giants take on the Florida Marlins, Channel 738 on DirecTV.