LOS ANGELES – In another 20 years, when they retire his number and name the pitcher’s mound after him, the Seattle Mariners may look back upon May 20, 2009, as the day Felix Hernandez grew up. Until then, they’ll try to start him every fifth day and enjoy results like those they got Saturday, when Hernandez beat the Los Angeles Dodgers, 5-1.
He wasn’t alone in victory, of course. Ichiro Suzuki had three more hits – he’s now collected two or more in seven consecutive games, matching his personal high. Franklin Gutierrez had three hits and drove in the Mariners’ first run.
Ken Griffey Jr., playing left field on his wife’s 40th birthday, and yes, Melissa was at the park, hit his 620th career home run.
And Russell Branyan launched a moon shot in the ninth inning, his 19th home run of the year.
As for Felix? Well, ask his catcher, Rob Johnson.
“His four-seam fastball was cutting six inches, his sinker was sinking a foot,” Johnson said. “Catching him was so much fun. All four of his pitches were working.”
Or ask Joe Torre, manager of the Dodgers.
“Well, Felix was dominating, there’s no question,” Torre said. “We got his pitch count up early, and he took care of that because he had some quick innings. He got in a groove, and it got tougher and tougher.”
Ask people in the crowd of 50,847 what impressed them most about the Mariners in their 38th victory of the season, and the answer likely would be “Felix.”
It would be hard to blame them.
“It was a good game,” Hernandez allowed. “After the first couple innings, I got the feel for my breaking pitches. My fastball was there all night.”
So was the offense, which banged out 12 hits and got enough runs that the game was never seriously in question after the Mariners scored three times in the third inning.
Since losing to the Angels on May 19, Hernandez has been a man on a mission, going 4-0 and allowing two runs or fewer in three starts where he had no-decision. Over the span of those seven starts, he hasn’t gone fewer than 62/3 innings in any game.
What happened? Manager Don Wakamatsu happened.
The first-year manager told the media after that start in Anaheim that Felix hadn’t been focused in the 6-5 loss, that he had failed to hold baserunners and cost his team a loss.
After hearing those comments the next day, Hernandez walked into Wakamatsu’s office for a talk. Wakamatsu not only repeated what he said, he told Hernandez he had to be accountable.
And if he wanted to be known as a team ace, even at age 23, he’d have to earn the right on the mound, not through some media coronation.
A light may not have come on in the right-hander’s head, but he hasn’t been the same pitcher since. Hernandez has shouldered the workload of a No. 1 starter, working the innings to save the bullpen for the rest of the rotation.
This time, he threw 117 pitches – matching his season high – and had it not been for a ball Ichiro lost in the lights in the third inning, would have had a shutout. As it was, he not only moved to 8-3, he sliced his earned run average from 2.74 to 2.54.
Yes, Virginia, the kid can pitch. Which is precisely what Wakamatsu asked him to do last month. What’s happened since?
“Felix has been getting better and better,” Wakamatsu said. “Against a very good team, he was just dominant tonight. He had an electric fastball, and he’s such a competitor.”
Hernandez said Johnson kept telling him how much his ball was moving all night, never a bad thing for a pitcher to hear – especially when it’s true.
“I felt good all night, and after seven innings I said, ‘One more!’” he said. “That’s my job.”
He did it in fairly spectacular fashion Saturday.
Eight full innings, four hits, no earned runs, one walk and nine strikeouts. Backed by an offense that included home runs from Griffey and Branyan, it was good to be Felix.
“The guys played great defense behind me, especially Gutierrez in center field,” he said. “And I’ll always take the runs.”
Branyan hit a mammoth shot – nearly as high as it was long.
“When I was in Cleveland, the guys used to time the hang time,” Branyan said, shrugging. “I just hit ’em, I don’t time ’em.”
The win gave the Mariners a 38-36 record, impressive in light of their record a year ago after 74 games (26-48).