SEATTLE – Gloves went flying into the air. Players screamed and celebrated, bouncing around the grass with unabashed joy.
Even in Jackson, Tenn., Felix Hernandez’s perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday was reason for celebration.
Sure there was a bit more of a personal connection for the Jackson Generals than just being the Double-A affiliate of the Mariners. Hernandez’s older brother, Moises, is a pitcher for the Generals.
But the reaction nearly 2,500 miles away from Safeco Field speaks to Hernandez’s importance to the Mariners’ organization.
Hernandez has a Cy Young Award. He’s joined the pitching elite with just the 23rd perfect game in baseball history.
What’s next? Trying to make the Mariners relevant again for more than just the efforts of their pitching ace.
“Just keep throwing the way I’ve been throwing,” Hernandez said. “Just do my job. Try and help my team to win. That’s what is next.”
From the time Hernandez made his major league debut in August 2005 as a curly-haired 19-year-old, the question has been “when,” not “if” he would throw at least a no-hitter.
He nearly did in 2007, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning at Fenway Park, finishing with a brilliant one-hitter. effort against the Red Sox. In 2009 against Texas, Hernandez carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning before Nelson Cruz hit a solo home run.
Those near-misses only increased Hernandez’s desire to achieve perfection.
“This guy deserved the odds to fall in his favor, for sure,” Seattle catcher John Jaso said.
Even before Ichiro Suzuki was traded to the Yankees last month, Hernandez had taken the role of Seattle’s most recognizable and most beloved star. He’s stuck around through a pair of 101-loss seasons since his debut seven years ago and countless days where Hernandez has been on his game and the Mariners offense failed to give him any support.
He signed an extension with the Mariners in 2010 when the better financial decision would have been to wait for free agency to arrive. Hernandez has never hidden his emotions – good or bad – on the mound or in the dugout, endearing him even more to a fan base that’s had little to cheer about during an 11-year playoff drought.
“The intangibles for me are what separates him,” Seattle manager Eric Wedge said. “No doubt about it he’s got great talent, but there are a lot of players at this level that have great talent. But for me the intangibles, the teammate that he is, the leadership that he brings, the toughness and the consistency that he brings with all that, that’s what separates him.”
There were additional layers of uniqueness to Hernandez’s gem. Safeco Field became the first stadium to host two perfect games in the same season, including Philip Humber’s perfecto for the White Sox against the Mariners in April. Seattle became the first team since the California Angels in 1973 to have two no-hitters in the same season. Six Mariners pitchers combined to no-hit the Dodgers in June. The Angels’ two no-no’s in 1973 were both thrown by Nolan Ryan.
Also important to Hernandez is his Venezuelan heritage. He became the second Latin American pitcher to throw a perfect game, joining Dennis Martinez. Hernandez wasn’t able to fully enjoy his moment — his wife and kids flew back to Venezuela last week to visit family there.
“She’s not here, kids aren’t here. I’m alone, man,” he said.
During the final few innings superstition took over in the Mariners dugout. No one stood on the railing as he pitched. Usually teammates line the top step of the dugout to get the closest view possible, but in this case they were too afraid to move. Franklin Gutierrez, one of Hernandez’s closest friends on the Mariners roster, never left his seat and never spoke to his fellow Venezuelan.
“I just (sat) in one spot and I didn’t move from there,” Gutierrez said. “I was watching the game, concentrating on what he was doing and thinking he was going to do it. …I don’t know if he was nervous, but I was on the bench nervous, shaking.”
It helped Hernandez that Jaso was behind the plate. The two have worked well this season when matched up as the Mariners battery and were coming off a two-hit shutout in New York against the Yankees just two starts earlier.
Additionally, just a year ago, Jaso was in the Rays clubhouse when hitters’ meetings would take place and they would break down how to approach facing Hernandez. The decision by the Rays was to jump on fastballs early in the count, because the swings against his off-speed pitches — especially if Hernandez was on — would be flailing at best.
Hernandez needed just 24 pitches to get through the first three innings. By the time the Rays started working the count, Hernandez was already rolling. Even more impressive was how Hernandez closed, striking out eight of the final 12 batters and freezing Sean Rodriguez on the final pitch.
“Today was special. We could throw any pitch in any count,” Hernandez said. “Today was unbelievable.”
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