Facing Felix Hernandez (cont.)
Joe Mauer's sunbeam pure swing has led to a .448 career average and 1.308 OPS against Hernandez in 29 at-bats. Mauer's cadence makes it easy to assume he's just being polite when discussing this while walking out to the field for stretch in May before his Twins face the Mariners at Safeco Field.
"I don't know. It's just one of those things," Mauer said. "For whatever reason, I've done pretty well off him. I can't really put my finger on it."
To assure he's not just being coy, Mauer laments his lack of success against Paul Byrd. Mauer hit .167 against Byrd, a 14-year journeyman who last pitched in the majors in 2009, and is still searching for the cause. When he gets back to Hernandez, Mauer explains the problems most face with him.
"All of his stuff is above average," Mauer said. "You try to eliminate pitches and try to make a guy prove he can throw other things over for strikes, but that's what makes him so tough, is that he can throw anything at any time.
"He's probably, I would say, more dangerous than ever."
Six hours later, Mauer was in the showers with an 0-for-3 against Hernandez, who threw eight innings, allowed one hit, no runs and struck out nine Twins. He threw Mauer 13 pitches -- four changeups, three fastballs, two sinkers, two curves and two cutters -- nine of which were strikes. Hernandez has a major-league-best 10 starts this season of eight innings or more in which he's doled out one run or fewer.
In two of those outings, the victims have been the vaunted Rangers. Last season Texas bludgeoned Hernandez, leaving him 0-4 with a 5.04 ERA in four starts. This year, he's faced them twice in Safeco and allowed one run in 17 innings.
No one has seen Hernandez more than Rangers veteran Michael Young. He faced the younger Hernandez, the one with a two-pitch reliance, desperate to blow fastballs past all. Young scoffs at concern about Hernandez's reduction in velocity.
"That's kind of like saying a hitter that hits 40 homers a year, has gone from 450 feet to 425 feet every home run," Young said. "Doesn't really matter."
He also thinks Hernandez still has 96- or 97-mph fastballs lurking in his right arm, though the radar gun doesn't show them this year. Whether Hernandez does or not is of little relevance because the belief and hunt for them just gives him another point of leverage.
For all his gifts, Hernandez has won just 38 games in the past three seasons, which ranks tied for 17th in the majors. It's easy to wonder where his win total would be with another organization. The Mariners' offense has been brutally bad the past few seasons, ranking dead last in the majors in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage since 2009.
As a result, Hernandez is forced to grind out games with little run support, upping his innings total and the wear on his right arm. His propensity to go deep into games -- he's pitched seven or more innings in 18 of his 25 starts this season -- makes opposing managers fill out the lineup card differently.
"Right on right, obviously he abuses those guys," Cleveland manager Manny Acta said. "There's no need to be splitting any lefties when you know he's going to be out there for the long haul."
That leads many teams to use the same approach Tampa Bay did Wednesday: swing early, preferably at a fastball. Seattle catcher John Jaso pointed out after the perfect game that he knew the Rays' approach against Hernandez from his days playing with them and facing Felix himself. But Tampa Bay had actually revealed its strategy way back in April.
"We were just in Tampa, and second time through the order, they decided, 'We're having a tough time,' " Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis said. "'We're going to come up and swing at the first pitch. We're going to get that fastball and swing at the first pitch.'
"Now, the majority of pitchers, obviously you recognize that. The majority of pitchers, they have one pitch they'll go to. OK, they're sitting first-pitch fastball, I'll start throwing my curveball. Or one guy might say, I'm going to throw my slider.
"But in Felix's case, he may throw him an 0-0 curveball, the next guy comes up, he might throw an 0-0 changeup. It's not just one, he can throw any."
That's partly what led to Wednesday's perfect result.
While Hernandez has never been a nationwide celebrity, due in part to the fact he's yet to pitch a postseason game, he is plenty popular in Seattle. He's a star in the Mariners' off-beat commercials, appearing as Larry Bernandez, his zany alter ego, who Hernandez is able to portray with skill because the characterization is not distant from the real thing.
His teammates often wear bright yellow King Felix T-shirts or the latest in Felix wear, the "Capitan Fifi" tee -- Fifi is one of his nicknames -- which has a depiction of Hernandez as Captain Morgan with his foot on a giant baseball.
During the Mariners' annual Family Day at Safeco Field, Hernandez threw pitches to other players' kids -- most on the roster didn't participate in the outing -- and was one of the first present and last to leave.
Before his outing on Father's Day, he had to be coaxed from his typical routine to see a banner behind a plane circling Safeco that read, "King 34 you are the best dad ever we [love] you." His wife, Sandra, put together the surprise, and only macho guilt kept Hernandez from shedding tears in front of his teammates.
There is still the question of how much longer those players will remain his teammates. Trading Hernandez this winter would provide whichever team lands him with two full seasons from one of the most dominant pitchers in the game. The return haul for the Mariners would be expected to move them closer to the playoffs.
If the Mariners have any future leverage to re-sign Hernandez, it could well rest in the pull of his heart. He has grown up in the Mariners' system, signing with them as a teenager from Venezuela in 2002. He has become a star with them. And, despite the team's struggles, he showed earlier this week that by making history on a beautiful afternoon in front of thousands of adoring fans, his situation in Seattle can be just about perfect.
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