SEATTLE – The count fell to 2-0 on Sean Rodriguez, the last Tampa Bay hitter between Felix Hernandez and history.
Hernandez walked around the mound, stood on the back slope and took a deep breath. He might have been the only person in Safeco Field still breathing.
In the batter’s box, Rodriguez told himself to look for a fastball. That’s what a pitcher throws to the potential last out of a perfect game. And that’s what the Rays’ scouting report said to look for from Hernandez.
But Mariners catcher John Jaso, who was the masterful conductor of this Wednesday afternoon classic, called for a slider. A former Tampa Bay player, Jaso knew the Rays’ approach to Hernandez.
“I took a little walk, you know, to catch my breath,” Hernandez said. “He (Jaso) called a slider and I’d been following him all day. I threw a slider and he (Rodriguez) swung and missed.”
The pitch was unfair and unhittable – the perfect pitch for this perfect Wednesday. The crowd got louder. The count went to 2-and-2 and Rodriguez looked as helpless as a fighter caught on the ropes.
“Throw it over the plate. Throw it over the plate,” Hernandez told himself as he looked into Jaso for the final time. “He’s going to swing.”
But Rodriguez froze and home-plate umpire Rob Drake called the third strike and the Mariners had their first perfect game.
And even though it only was the 23rd perfect game in big-league history, a game like this for Hernandez seemed almost inevitable.
How many times have we seen him cruise through the first three innings, looking untouchable? How many times has he taken no-hit stuff to the mound? How many times have we thought, “This is the day.”
This was the day.
“I was talking to (Miguel) Olivo and I told him it was just a matter of time before Felix did this,” said teammate and good friend Franklin Gutierrez said. “We’re always playing around with him about a perfect game and asking him, ‘When you going to do it?’ He told me, ‘I’m going to do it sometime. Some of these days. I just don’t know when.’ ”
Warming up in the bullpen before the game, Hernandez knew that everything – fastball, curveball, change-up, slider – was working. “Something’s going on right now,” he told himself.
He took all of those pitches into the game. In fact, Hernandez was so good in the 1-0 victory, he could throw any pitch on any count.
Early in the game, he threw five breaking balls in a row and the Rays were helpless. Definitely, something was going on.
“It almost seems like a matter of time until it happens,” Jaso said. “Keep making your pitches and the odds (of a perfect game) are going to go in your favor eventually. And the guy deserved for the odds to fall in his favor today, for sure.”
Remember the silly concerns about his velocity after the team broke camp in Peoria? Well, in the seventh inning, an amped-up Hernandez threw 96 mph.
And in the ninth, he jammed pinch-hitter Jeff Keppinger with a 95-mph fastball that Keppinger couldn’t have hit if Jaso had whispered to him the location and the type of pitch that was coming.
“That got my attention,” manager Eric Wedge said of that 1-1 pitch. “You have to have a little luck on your side when you talk about 27 outs and you’re playing against the best ballplayers in the world. “I think a lot of things have to come together. It starts with his stuff.
“But the intangibles, for me, are what separate him. No doubt about it, he has great stuff. But the teammate that he is, the leadership that he brings and the toughness and consistency with all that. That’s what separates him.”
Normally Gutierrez sits with Hernandez between innings and talks with him, keeping him loose and focused. Several times between innings, he usually walks into the clubhouse and grabs a bottle of water.
But today, Gutierrez didn’t talk to his friend and, for 27 outs, he didn’t budge from his spot on the bench.
“Today was different. I don’t know. You could just feel it,” Gutierrez said. “I saw that he was really serious today and I didn’t want to bother him. I realized in the fourth inning that all of his pitches were working and I said, ‘OK, I’m not going to say anything to him. I’m not going to play around.’
“I don’t know if Felix was nervous, but I was nervous. I was shaking and looking around. I just sat there and said, ‘He’s going to do it. He’s going to do it.’ And he did it. And for me to experience this is amazing.”
After the final strike, Jaso stayed in his crouch for another half a beat, still framing the ball in his glove.
“I can’t believe that just happened,” he told himself. “Oh, my god.”
This was how perfection felt.