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 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 one-hitter. 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 the 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.
“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.”