The King (Photo/AP)
SEATTLE – In a season filled with missed opportunities and lopsided defeats, the Mariners entered play on Tuesday with 19-year-old sensation Felix Hernandez set to make his second big league start and his first in front of the home crowd at Safeco Field. Dubbed “The King” during his two-year stay in the minors, Hernandez lived up to the hype and hurled eight dazzling innings of scoreless baseball to lead Seattle to one of its most memorable victories in the past decade.
Hernandez, a bit shaky in the early going of his big league debut last Thursday in Detroit, showed no nerves in his second start in a Mariners uniform, controlling Minnesota with the ability to change speeds and paint both sides of the plate with all of his pitches.
In his eight innings, the young Venezuelan right-hander gave up five hits and struck out six Twins batters without yielding a walk, continually bringing the home crowd to its feet. Mariners closer Eddie Guardado took over in the ninth and retired Minnesota in order to preserve the 1-0 win, putting the capper on a magical night in front of 34,213 very fortunate fans at Safeco Field.
Hernandez earned the winning decision and moved to 1-1 on the season, lowering his ERA to 0.69 in the process (one earned run in 13 innings).
Confident and collected on the mound from the onset, Hernandez gave up an infield single to Shannon Stewart to lead off the game but remained calm and largely unfazed. The teenage flame-thrower sent the next 12 batters down in order, regularly getting ahead in the count and hitting his spots seemingly effortlessly.
Hernandez threw first-pitch strikes to 20 of the 29 batters he faced, and finished the game having tossed 73 percent (69 of his 94) of his pitches for strikes. His pitches were broken down as follows – 60 fastballs (95-97 mph), 20 curveballs (81-84 mph) and 14 changeups (82-84 mph).
The game remained tied through the first half of the seventh, due to the terrific outing of Twins’ starter Kyle Lohse, who nearly equaled Hernandez’s performance. Lohse allowed only two Mariners hits through six innings, but ran into trouble with two outs in the seventh. After the Twins’ hurler retired the heart of Seattle’s lineup, getting Richie Sexson to ground out and striking out Adrian Beltre, Jeremy Reed doubled to right-center and came home one batter later on a triple off the bat of speedy shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt.
Hernandez returned in the eighth to the surprise of many, but responded like an ace is supposed to. He gave up singles to Justin Morneau and Stewart to give Minnesota runners on first and second with two out, but coaxed second baseman Nick Punto into a weak grounder back to the mound to end the Twins threat.
That proved to be the The King’s last out in a game that captivated a region of baseball fans. A game that reminded the Mariners faithful what its like to have an ace, to have fun and to clap and cheer for something special. A game that could very well be the start of something special.