Hernandez leads the Rainiers in wins (AP)
TACOMA, Wash. – When you’re 19 years old and touted as the game’s best pitching prospect, there are going to be lofty expectations thrust upon your every move. When you jump, someone is going to be there with ruler and credit card to measure exactly how high.
Each time Felix Hernandez takes the mound, the whispers begin to scatter throughout the first few rows at Cheney Stadium. Whispers of scouts from numerous organizations as they lean in to exchange thoughts on the King.
This sort of attention gives birth to expectations that result in some observers walking away disappointed.
After Hernandez’s seven-inning outing on Friday night, none of those “observers” left with a bad taste in their collective mouth – even though it wasn’t the sharpest outing by the young prospect.
Hernandez allowed three earned runs on two long balls, the only two hits he would surrender, settling down after a somewhat shaky first few innings to earn his fourth win of the year by a score of 8-4.
“I felt pretty good,” said Hernandez. “I was working to throw strikes and throw my fastball more - my two-seamer.”
The right-hander gave up the first home run to Stingers DH Jeff Mathis, a highly regarded prospect in the Angels organization, and fell behind 2-0 after two innings.
After the Rainiers scored three runs of their own in the home half of the second, Hernandez served up the second and final hit of his start to third baseman Adam Pavkovich. The King threw a fastball, and according to the very personable star himself, it wasn’t a bad pitch.
“It was a fastball,” said Hernandez and he broke into a big smile. “It got up in the wind.”
The Rainiers kept the offense rolling behind firts baseman Aaron Rifkin’s seventh home run of the year and three hits and two RBI by third baseman Hunter Brown.
Brown made his third straight start at the hot corner for the injured Justin Leone (hand) and his three hits were not of the cheap kind. Brown singled sharply to left in the Rainiers three-run second inning, doubled off the wall in right-center in the fifth and added another single in the seventh. The multi-hit night was a welcomed occurrance for the 25-year-old Texas native.
“It’s just getting in there and getting comfortable,” said Brown. “Playing three days in a row really helps. For me at the beginning of a season at a new level your just trying to make adjustments. when you are not in there everyday it’s harder to make those adjustments.”
Brown’s frustrations went unheard, but the battle to stay prepared was an ongoing fight as he sat and waited his turn to play.
“I was battling mentally,” said Brown. It’s tough to tell yourself to keep going but that’s the game. The people that can deal with failure the best seem to make it to the big leagues. I knew it was going to happen eventually. I hope I can keep it going.”
The highlight of the night, however, was not the eight runs scored or the performance by Felix Hernandez. It was a solo home run by left fielder Shin-soo Choo.
With the score 7-3 Tacoma, Choo stepped to the plate to face Stingers right-hander Scott Schneider. The inning began very quietly. The at-bat started off very innocently. But it ended with a bang.
Choo sent a 2-0 fastball on a line over the center field wall for his second home run of the season. Initially, that doesn’t sound too impressive, other than the fact that the round-tripper was hit. But the blast by Choo cleared the 28-foot wall at Cheney Stadium for the second time EVER in the 45-year history of the ballpark. Choo joined A.J. Zapp as the only players to ever hit a baseball over the stadium’s tallest wall.
“It was a fastball in,” said Choo. “I didn’t know how good I hit it at first, but I saw it go out and then I knew I’d hit it pretty far.”
Choo added that his teammates in the dugout complimented the 23-year-old on the blast saying that they said “that was amazing.”
Rainiers skipper Dan Rohn joked about the impressive nature of the bomb, just as he did last September when he watched Zapp do the same. Last Fall, Rohn said “It was wind-aided. He didn’t get all of it.”
Friday night, Rohn’s sarcasm rang the doorbell again when he offered his opinion of Choo’s home run.
“He got jammed,” said Rohn.
The Rainiers got a boost at the very top of their lineup with the return of Jamal Strong. Strong was suspended for testing positive for a banned substance and was back to his old self Friday night, swiping two bases and going 1-for-4 with a walk.
“I let my team and the organization down but I’m glad to be back,” said Strong.
Strong was taking a supplement that contained a banned substance but the 26-year-old center fielder did not make any excuses, taking responsibility for the suspension and even going as far as commending baseball for such a policy.
“I think it’s (the drug policy) doing what it’s supposed to be doing,” said Strong. “The supplement that i took, I didn’t read the back of it but there’s nothing I can do about it (now) and it’s catching people from doing illegal stuff.
“Whatever you take you have to read the back of everything. There won’t be a next time because I won’t take any more supplements and I’m not taking any steroids or nothing like that but I’m glad the league it cracking down on it.”
Strong’s bothersome knee welcomed the time off, however, and the speedster is anxious to get back to playing his brand of baseball.
“I’m ready to come back and play the real baseball that I’m capable of playing.”
Hernandez finished the night with four walks and three strikeouts and also got a home run from Ramon Santiago to pad the lead and help him get through seven innings for the second straight start. Hernandez threw 87 pitches, 51 for strikes.
“He’s pretty good,” said Rohn. “He’s something special.”