Tuesday, August 16, 2005
Updated: August 17, 6:01 PM ET
Holding court with King Felix
By David Schoenfield
BURLINGTON, Conn. -- While most of New England went to bed grumpy and a little depressed, dreaming nightmarish pinstriped dreams after Curt Schilling's blown save, I stayed up late.
Felix Hernandez -- King Felix -- was pitching in Seattle and I was on West Coast time.
I had to watch this 19-year-old wunderkind, this Venezuelan flamethrower, a teenager who has fantasy owners bragging to unsuspecting cubicle mates about drafting him back in March.
I had to watch because I'm a Mariners fan and it's been a stinking lousy two years. I had to watch because he'll be a phenom with an unlimited future for only a breath of time. I had to watch because if he were pitching for the Red Sox or Yankees, the stadiums would have melted from the red-hot hype.
But he's not with Boston or New York. He's with the Mariners. And I had to watch Monday night because maybe -- just maybe -- he really is the King who can save my baseball team.
Top of the First
After blowing away David DeJesus of the Royals to start the game, Hernandez drops a 1-2 curveball on Chip Ambres -- a pitch that fans at the USS Mariner blog have already dubbed the Royal Curve -- and it's a lovely thing, a hard, tight-breaking curve that crosses the heart of the plate at 84 mph. Ambres turns and walks to the dugout.
It's this pitch that has scouts scribbling superlatives in their notebooks, that had Royals outfielder Terrence Long saying before the game, after watching videotape of Hernandez, that the kid has the best stuff of any pitcher he's seen this year besides Roy Oswalt.
For Mariners fans who have watched their pitching staff compile the fewest strikeouts in the majors -- Jamie Moyer, in what surely must be the most brain-numbing stat of the season, leads the team with 77 strikeouts -- it's refreshing to see a power pitcher, one who tips the radar gun at 98 mph in the first and now unleashes this power curve.
Top of the Second
Hernandez has a classic pitcher's build -- which, means, I suppose, that he has a large posterior. He wears his No. 59 jersey loose, and the back comes untucked this inning; Little Leaguers all over the greater Seattle area are undoubtedly already running around with the backs of their jerseys flopping behind them. His pants are pulled down over the tops of his spikes and the bill of his cap is nearly flat. His face is a little pudgy, and I suspect he'll have to watch his weight down the road; let's hope he doesn't morph into Bartolo Colon -- we have enough overweight pitchers wearing loose-fitting uniforms these days. His delivery reminds me of ex-Mariner, and fellow Venezuelan, Freddy Garcia, landing on a stiff front leg, falling off slightly to the first-base side as he completes his delivery.
Hernandez gives up a base hit to Angel Berroa on a first-pitch fastball. Before that, he receives help from second baseman Yuniesky Betancourt, one of about 84 different roster moves this month for the Mariners, who makes a spectacular diving stop to rob Long. Betancourt is really a shortstop, a defector from Cuba, but he's playing second this night, and it's a play that Bret Boone wouldn't have come within five feet of making.
Top of the Third
Granted, King Felix probably faced tougher lineups in the Pacific Coast League than this Royals team, which has lost 15 straight entering the game, but he fans five of the first nine batters and I think Joe McEwing just swung at one heater as catcher Yorvit Torrealba was throwing it back to the mound. And seeing McEwing in the lineup is a reminder that although it has been a painful year for the Mariners, rooting for the Royals must be proof that all our sins haven't been forgiven.
Top of the Fourth
Ambres fans, looking again at another curveball. He didn't see pitches like that in Triple-A.
Mike Sweeney -- hey, a Royal you've actually heard of! -- is thrown out on another spectacular play by Betancourt, who fields a chopper behind second base and somehow manages to fling it sidearm as he crosses over to the shortstop side of second. An amazing play. I think the Mariners have their shortstop of the future. Please let him learn to hit a little, too.
King Felix finishes the inning fanning Emil Brown on a 97-mph sinking fastball. Yes, you read that correctly: a 97-mph pitch at the knees.
What's been impressive is that Hernandez has had strikeouts on four different pitches: a straight power fastball on the inner half, the curve, a fastball on the outside corner, and a sinking fastball.
The first four innings are played in 53 minutes. The King gets the ball, the King throws the ball; confident, even-keeled, with little facial expression and no wasted energy. Get the ball, throw the ball. Strike three, you're out.
Top of the Fifth
Allow a short rant against Mariners management: They've been a complete and utter disaster the past couple of seasons, the anti-"Moneyball" approach to building a team. They overpaid for mediocre vets like Scott Spiezio, who is still on the roster despite just two hits on the season (that's not a typo; he's 2-for-45). They had nobody to play shortstop. They call up and send down catchers twice a week. Adrian Beltre, the first huge-money free agent signing in club history, has been a colossal flop, with a .260 average, .300 on-base percentage and $11.4 million salary. Bret Boone woke up one night in April, discovered his bat speed was gone, and never found the Jason Giambi medicine in his locker. Willie Bloomquist is hitting second tonight. A pitcher with a 6-12 record tested positive for steroids, leaving Mariners fans wondering why he couldn't have at least been good. They started the season with an $86 million payroll, ninth-highest in the majors, and were so bad, despite spending more than $100 million on free agents Beltre and Richie Sexson, they decided to gut the roster midseason and start over with a bunch of kids.
So, you see, we're rooting for King Felix because we need King Felix.
Not to add pressure on him.
It's 1-2-3 in the fifth and Hernandez introduces Mark Teahan to his third pitch ... an 86-mph changeup. Think about that for two seconds. Hernandez throws some 96-mph gas, one of which Teahan breaks his bat on, on a pitch that was a foot outside, and then throws three straight changeups. Teahan somehow lays off the first two but can't hold back on No. 3.
Felix is 19 years old.
Top of the Sixth
As my friend Joe Sheehan pointed out in his column at Baseball Prospectus, the Mariners did a very smart thing with Hernandez. His first three starts were a day game in Detroit (in a game that wasn't even televised in either market), in which he gave up two runs in five innings; a home start against the soft-hitting Twins, which he won 1-0 with eight shutout innings; and now a start at home against the even softer-hitting Royals.
I managed to catch some of his first start on a feed at work, but the only camera must have been sitting in the upper deck at Comerica Park and it looked Hernandez was 15 feet from the batter. His second start wasn't televised on the Extra Innings package, so I missed that one.
He's still throwing 95-97 in the sixth. He walks McEwing -- his first walk of the game -- but there's no other damage.
Top of the Seventh
When I was 15, I had a poster of Dwight Gooden in my bedroom. It said, "Dr. K says no to drugs." I kid you not.
Dr. K was 19 in his rookie season of 1984. He struck out 10 or more hitters 15 times. He finished with a flourish, going at least eight innings in his final eight starts and twice fanning 16 in September. He was 17-9 that year with a 2.60 ERA and a league-leading 276 K's. The next year, he was even better. I bought a Mets cap, even though I lived 3,000 miles from Shea Stadium and had never seen the Mets play.
Dwight Gooden had a good career, though he fell short of Hall of Fame stature. He was really undone by shoulder injuries, not the drugs, although popular history seems to view his career as a failure to reach the unlimited potential he flashed as a teenager.
Somewhere there is a 15-year-old kid buying a Mariners hat because he sees the future of Felix Hernandez.
The Royals finally scratch across a run, as Sweeney lines a single into right-center (really, along with Berroa's hit, the only hard-hit balls all game), Brown reaches on an infield single, and Sweeney eventually scores on two groundouts.
Top of the Eighth
Wouldn't you believe it ... my Extra Innings package blanks out. I assumed Felix would have been removed anyway, with Seattle leading 8-1, and his pitch count at 89. But I flip over to "Baseball Tonight" and see that he's still pitching in the eighth. Why? There is no point to having him pitch another unnecessary inning with a seven-run lead in a game between two last-place clubs in the middle of August. Take him out.
Luckily, Hernandez goes 1-2-3, throwing just 10 pitches, and striking out McEwing looking, for his 11th K of the game. Mariners fans line up the "KKKKKKKKKKKing Felix" placards in the outfield.
He comes out after eight innings and 99 pitches. He was still humming 96-mph heat in the eighth. His final line: 8 innings, 3 hits, 1 run, 1 walk, 11 strikeouts. He has a 0.86 ERA through his first three major league starts, with 21 K's and just 11 hits allowed in 21 innings.
After the game, Mariners manager Mike Hargrove said, "I am trying not to go over the deep-end bragging about this guy. I would love to sit here and tell you all the flowery, beautiful things that I am feeling, but common sense tells me I should not go down that road."
I'll go down that road. When you're a Mariners fan you have to stop and smell the flowers.
David Schoenfield is a lifelong Mariners fan and an editor for Page 2.