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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Phenom lives up to billing

Kirby Arnold Everett Herald

SEATTLE – The fastball topped out at 98 mph, the curve nosedived at 84 and the Minnesota Twins spent most of the night unsure how to hit either pitch.

When the rare misstep presented Felix Hernandez an opportunity to lose his composure and behave like a jumpy teenager, he didn’t. On one of the most pleasant nights the Seattle Mariners have experienced this season, their 19-year-old pitching phenom was major league-ready.

Hernandez, starting his first career game at Safeco Field, beat the Twins 1-0 Tuesday, pitching eight scoreless innings and finishing with a line seldom seen from the Mariners’ pitching staff this season: five hits, six strikeouts and no walks.

“We have to remember that he is only 19 years old, and if he continues, he’s got a chance to be really special,” Mariners manager Mike Hargrove said.

The Mariners provided the only run Hernandez needed in the seventh inning when Jeremy Reed doubled with two outs and Yuniesky Betancourt followed with a triple.

“I feel really happy because the team supported me,” Hernandez said. “This has always been my dream, and I have to work hard to keep it. I feel very confident.”

In two major league starts, Hernandez is 1-1 with a 0.69 earned run average. He has a string of 12 innings without an earned run going back to his major league debut last Thursday in Detroit, when the Tigers scored in the first of his five innings.

At two hours and one minute, the game was the shortest in Safeco Field history. And one of the best pitched.

Twins right-hander Kyle Lohse pitched nearly as well as Hernandez, holding the Mariners to two hits and just one runner as far as second base before Reed and Betancourt broke through in the eighth. Lohse allowed four hits in seven innings.

In a game between two of the league’s three worst hitting teams – the Mariners are last in the A.L. and the Twins 12th in team batting average – the lack of scoring wasn’t a shock.

Even so, Hernandez was outstanding.

He kept his pitch count down (94 in eight innings), fielded his position well (four times on balls back to the mound) and when he absolutely needed to get a crucial out, he made the right pitch.

After Matthew LeCroy and Jacque Jones led off the fifth inning with back-to-back singles, Lew Ford tried to bunt them to second and third.

Hernandez threw one of his high-octane fastballs and Ford couldn’t deaden the ball enough. Hernandez jumped quickly and fielded it cleanly about halfway between the mound and the plate, then threw out LeCroy at third base.

Third baseman Adrian Beltre made a throwing error on what would have been the final out of the inning – instead leaving the bases loaded – but Hernandez kept his composure and got Jason Bartlett on a grounder back to the mound.

“He got back on the mound and got the next guy out,” Hargrove said. “That’s what you like to see out of your people, whether they’re 19 or 90.”

Hernandez made two more plays on balls back at him, including Nick Punto’s hard shot with two outs and runners on first and second in the eighth after the Mariners had taken a 1-0 lead.

“When he’d get into a bind, he’d make a big pitch,” pitching coach Bryan Price said. “He wouldn’t try to overthrow and make them miss the ball. He just kept making good pitches.”

Hernandez nearly didn’t make it to the eighth inning after Hargrove and Price debated whether a rocky eighth might hurt the teenager’s confidence despite a job already done well.

“Do you take the guy out and assure him a good feeling, or do you take that risk?” Price said, repeating the question he and Hargrove were asking themselves. “We got to the point where we felt, let’s take the risk.”

Hernandez made it through the eighth despite allowing two hits, then took a seat while one of the steadiest members of the team closed out the Twins in the ninth. Eddie Guardado had already saved 27 games this season, including a team-record 26 straight, but was a nervous left-hander warming up in the bullpen knowing Hernandez’s gem was at stake.

“In my mind warming up it was 1-0 and I was thinking, ‘Please don’t blow this,’ ” Guardado said. “I’m not kidding, it goes through your mind. I didn’t want to give it up.”

He didn’t, retiring the Twins 1-2-3 for his 28th save.

Afterward, both Guardado and Hernandez got what’s been coming to them.

Guardado, a prankster who has left his mark on most everyone with the team, took a shaving-cream pie in the face from fellow reliever J.J. Putz.

Then he gave the game ball to Hernandez.

•Willie Bloomquist has started 28 of the Mariners’ past 30 games and raised his batting average from .197 to .278.

“He’s opened a lot of people’s eyes and has impressed me,” Hargrove said.

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