Commentary

Yankees won't underestimate King Felix

His record may appear pedestrian, but the Bombers know Hernandez is still lethal

Updated: May 28, 2011, 7:21 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

SEATTLE -- Mark Teixeira says he remembers his first encounter with Felix Hernandez "pretty vividly.''

In Teixeira's recollection, he was a 25-year-old Texas Ranger who had hit 38 home runs the previous season and had just played in his first All-Star Game. Hernandez was a 19-year-old rookie for the Seattle Mariners making his ninth major league start.

"I'm pretty sure there was a runner on third and less than two out," Teixeira said. "I dribbled a ball to second base and got the run in -- it was one of those. His ball was moving so much I couldn't believe I made contact. I went back to the dugout saying, 'Oh my goodness, this kid's something special.'"

[+] EnlargeFelix Hernandez
AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziHernandez had some of his best stuff when facing the Yankees last season.

The truth is somewhat less dramatic. According to Baseball-reference.com, the earliest recorded meeting of Teixeira and the pitcher who would come to be known as King Felix came Sept. 16, 2005. Teixeira was a three-year veteran and Hernandez, indeed, was just four months past his 19th birthday.

But history tells us that Teixeira flied out to center field in their first encounter, and in their second, two innings later, he led off with a line-drive double deep into the right-field gap that hastened Hernandez's exit in the following inning.

Perhaps Tex was just being modest, or perhaps his epiphany occurred in a later meeting. (The situation Teixeira described actually occurred the second time their teams met, 11 days later in the same season.)

Or perhaps he just didn't want to risk antagonizing Hernandez with a bad memory, since tonight, Teixeira, this time in the uniform of the New York Yankees, will meet Hernandez again.

Teixeira and Hernandez have crossed paths 47 times in their careers, and by just about any yardstick the batter has gotten the better of the matchup. Teixeira has 14 hits in his 47 ABs vs. Hernandez (.298), including four doubles and three home runs. He has also struck out 12 times, because after all, this is King Felix.

And despite his uncommon success against the 2010 Cy Young Award winner, Teixeira still gives Hernandez the utmost respect.

"To me, he's the perfect pitcher," Teixeira says. "You have a guy that throws hard, who can hit the corners with three different pitches, and his breaking stuff is so good that you just hope he makes a mistake, because if he makes his pitch, you're not going to get many hits off him.''

Teixeira and Curtis Granderson (11-for-34, .324, one home run and 13 Ks) are just two of a healthy handful of Yankees who have decent numbers against Hernandez. Derek Jeter has a .304 lifetime average (7-for-23); Russell Martin, Jorge Posada, Brett Gardner and Robinson Cano have also held their own in much smaller samples.

And yet, Hernandez's dominance over the Yankees is beyond dispute; they have not beaten him since May 3, 2008, when the Bombers knocked him around for six runs in 5 2/3 innings at Yankee Stadium.

In their past four meetings, Hernandez has had a Koufax-like spell over the Yankees -- four wins, three complete games, a ridiculous 0.51 ERA. Last year, he beat them three times, twice on shutouts, and tonight's game is the first of three times the Yankees expect to face him in 2011. The Mariners come to the Bronx in late July, and the Yankees return to Seattle in mid-September.

After blowing a game they might have won on a rare off-night by Seattle rookie phenom Michael Pineda Friday, the Yankees are just waiting to see how hard they will get hit by the second part of the Mariners' lethal 1-2 punch.

"I can't tell you exactly what it is, but it seemed like whenever we matched up against him last year, he was dominant,'' Joe Girardi said. "Hopefully that's not the case this year.''

So far, Hernandez has not been as dominant in 2011 as he was in 2010, when he was a somewhat controversial Cy Young winner after amassing a pedestrian 13-12 record for a team that won just 61 games. But he led the league in ERA (2.27), innings (249.2) and hits per nine innings (7.0), and his 232 strikeouts were just one behind major league leader Jered Weaver.

Hernandez has lost two out of his past three starts, and his record is presently a somewhat unimposing 5-4 with 3.01 ERA.

And yet Granderson, who began his career against Hernandez red-hot -- eight hits in his first 12 at-bats -- and is currently among the hottest hitters in baseball, knows Hernandez is as dangerous as ever.

"When he's on, nobody can hit him,'' Granderson said. "I remember a game specifically last year in New York when he had some of the best stuff I had seen, probably ever. I had a lot of swing-and-misses that day.''

Granderson could have been talking about last June 30, when Hernandez shut out the Yankees 7-0 on two hits, and Granderson was one of his 11 strikeout victims. Or he could have meant last Aug. 20, when Hernandez did it again, this time allowing four hits in a 6-0 victory.

All Teixeira knows is, he hits Hernandez well and doesn't really care why. Nor does he want to risk poking the bear just before running into him again.

"I don't want to say I see the ball well against him,'' Teixeira said. "Maybe it's luck, honestly. I don't want to say that I've figured him out at all because I definitely haven't. Nobody has, really.''

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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