The Mariners' Felix Hernandez, the youngest player in the majors, has the confidence to match his preternatural talent. Moments before the 19-year-old righthanded phenom made his big league debut on Aug. 4 at Detroit's Comerica Park, catcher Wiki Gonzalez sought out the pitcher at his locker and asked, "You O.K.? Are you nervous?"
Hernandez, who that afternoon became the youngest pitcher to start his first major league game since Britt Burns took the mound for the White Sox in 1978, shook his head and grinned. "Are you?" retorted the Venezuela native, who has the words FELIX EL CARTELUA (rough translation: Felix the Badass) embroidered on his glove.
In his first two outings Hernandez showed that his highly anticipated promotion from the minors was not premature. Against the Tigers, Hernandez, widely regarded as the best pitching prospect in baseball, allowed just three balls out of the infield while giving up one earned run over five innings. In his next start Hernandez shut out the Twins for eight innings, striking out six, to notch his first career victory in a 1-0 win.
"Everyone knows his stuff is electric," says Mariners lefthander Jamie Moyer, who made his major league debut in June 1986, two months after Hernandez was born. "But what's most impressive is his poise. In Detroit he loaded the bases with no one out but pitched himself out of it, giving up just one run. He's got the self-assurance to match his stuff."
The baby-faced, 6'3", 224-pound Hernandez attacks hitters with two pitches: a buzzing 97-mph fastball and a rainbow curve. He also occasionally mixes in a changeup that he can locate with pinpoint precision. "He is a tremendous power pitcher, and yet he throws his off-speed pitches with as much accuracy as his fastball," says Mariners pitching coach Bryan Price. "He's also got a terrific slider, but we tell him not to use it--simply because he just doesn't need it right now."
Raised by middle-class parents in Valencia, an industrial city 70 miles southwest of Caracas, Hernandez idolized countryman and White Sox righthander Freddy Garcia, who pitched for the Mariners for 5 1/2 seasons. Pedro Avila, a Mariners scout who resides in Venezuela, discovered Hernandez when he was 14, and a little more than a year later, on July 4, 2002, Seattle gave the teen a $710,000 signing bonus. "There were many teams [that showed interest]," says Hernandez. "But I liked watching Seattle, and they tried the hardest to get me."
In April, Hernandez was featured on the cover of Baseball America; the corresponding story suggested that he might be the best teenaged pitcher since Dwight Gooden. Hernandez rocketed through the minor leagues, confirming his extraordinary talent. The youngest player in baseball this season above Single A, he went 9-4 with a league-leading 2.25 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 88 innings at Triple A Tacoma before his call-up. Says an AL scout, "There hasn't been this much buzz about a kid in a long time. What's becoming clear with each of his starts is that he's worthy of all the hype."
The Mariners haven't had a bona fide ace to anchor the rotation since Randy Johnson was traded to the Astros in '98. ( Johnson was dealt for a package of three players--including, coincidentally, Garcia.) Hernandez embraces the expectation that he'll soon be that kind of No. 1 starter in Seattle, where the Mariners are in last place in the AL West and on pace for a second-straight 90-loss season. "I think people look for a lot in me, but I do, too," says Hernandez. "I believe in myself. I know I belong here."