By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — Catcher John Jaso doesn’t like to admit it, but with Felix Hernandez closing in on a perfect game Wednesday, he was secretly rooting for his Seattle Mariner teammates to just ground out or something when they were at bat in the eighth inning.
Jaso just wanted to get back out behind the plate and get it over with.
Then when he donned his catching gear and started back out of the dugout for the top of the ninth, all he could think about was how badly his legs were shaking.
Out in the infield, Dustin Ackley was having SportsCenter thoughts — imagining himself recording the defensive gem that might preserve a perfect afternoon. In the Mariners bullpen, Tom Wilhelmsen and his fellow relievers had fallen silent, reticent to even look at each other as the top of the ninth inning was about to begin.
And once he took his usual place at shortstop, Brendan Ryan was trying like heck not to think of Springfield.
During the final inning of what has to have been the most magical day game in the 13-year history of Safeco Field, the Mariners were trying to pull off the impossible Wednesday afternoon. That is, they were trying not to get caught up in the magic that was happening.
As Hernandez took the mound on a hot afternoon, three outs away from the first perfect game in team history, the last thing his teammates wanted to think about was perfection.
“You want to get caught up in it. You want to be a fan, you want to be high-energy, and you want to live the moment,” Ryan said Friday. “But you’ve got to try to dumb things down and maintain your focus, and not get caught up in everything — because that’s when things change.”
And as for King Felix himself? Being perfect wasn’t something from which he wanted to be distracted.
“It was in my mind the whole game,” he said standing next to his locker Friday afternoon. “I was looking at the scoreboard.”
On an afternoon when the intensity of every single pitch built to an all-time high, there was no greater pressure-cooker than the top of the ninth inning. Three outs separated Hernandez from history, and his teammates did not want to let him down.
“My heart was racing,” Ackley recalled of the moment he took his place at second base with three outs to go and the Mariners leading Tampa Bay 1-0 on Wednesday. “… I was nervous for him. It was really about to happen.”
For Jaso, whose calls behind the plate were nearly as important as Hernandez’s amazing arsenal of pitches that day, the pressure really started to build in the bottom of the eighth. While the Mariners were at the plate, clinging to a 1-0 lead, a part of him just wanted his teammates to get through the inning quickly and start the ninth already.
“Sitting there on the bench, that’s when your mind gets going,” Jaso explained. “So I just wanted to get back out there and play defense, and we were having good at-bats. That was not working well for my mind cranking.”
After the Mariners failed to pad their lead in the eighth, Jaso chased away his jitters and ran out onto the field. Hernandez strutted out to the mound with everything on the line.
Throughout the game, Jaso had tried to keep everything as normal as possible. He didn’t stop talking to Hernandez in the dugout, despite the unwritten rule to stay clear of a pitcher throwing a no-hitter. Truth was, though, there hadn’t been much to say to Hernandez all game.
“Everything was working that day,” Jaso admitted, “so there wasn’t too much talk about that.”
Hernandez seemed to be chasing perfection from the first pitch, a 92-mile-per-hour cutter that went over for a strike. The only time Jaso really felt concerned that afternoon was when Tampa Bay’s Matt Joyce worked the count full before grounding to first base for the final out of the seventh inning.
Tampa Bay didn’t go quietly in the ninth.
The Rays tried to shake things up by sending out two pinch hitters to open the inning. Desmond Jennings stepped into the batters box first, and Jaso knew how important it was to keep the speedster off base — not just because of the perfect game, but also because the lead was just one run.
Jennings took the first pitch, an 85-mile-per-hour slider that missed for a ball. He swung and missed on the next pitch, got a called strike to fall behind 1-2, then fouled off two pitches. Hernandez sat him down with a 92-mile-and-hour fastball that had the yellow-clad fans in King’s Court into celebrating their hero’s 11th strikeout.
Two outs from perfection, the Mariners could really feel the pressure. Even Wilhelmsen, the Mariners’ closer, was completely engaged in the game while sitting with teammates in the bullpen. Not once did the thought cross his mind that he might have to start warming up in case Hernandez got into trouble.
“Not in the least bit,” Wilhelmsen said. “He still had another 35 to 40 pitches to work with. … There wasn’t any chance I was going to go in the game.”
With each pitch, intensity quietly built in the Mariners’ bullpen behind the outfield fence.
“We didn’t move from the seventh inning on,” Wilhelmsen said. “We all had our same spots. We didn’t talk much down there. We were just all (focused) in on Felix.”
Pinch hitter Jeff Keppinger followed Jennings. Facing Hernandez for the first time ever. Keppinger took the first pitch for a ball, but then fell behind 1-2 on a pair of sliders. He made contact with Hernandez’s fourth pitch, a 92-mile-per-hour changeup, and drove it toward Ryan at shortstop.
On what turned out to be the only defensive play needed in the ninth, Ryan was ready. For seven years, he had been mentally preparing himself for just such a situation by staying loose and treating each ground ball like any other. Even though the weight of Hernandez’s perfect game was heading his way, Ryan was able to free his mind.
That wasn’t the case back in 2005, when Ryan was playing Class AA baseball in Springfield, Ill. A two-out, bases-loaded grounder got the best of Ryan, whose error ended up costing his team the game.
“I remember the last thought in my mind was something like: Hey, if I boot this, the game’s over,” he said of his critical error in the minor league game. “So I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, and the worst result happened. So, I told myself after, ‘Don’t ever let that happen again.’”
Ryan, who turned 30 in March, was the most-veteran Mariner playing the field in the ninth Wednesday, and he knew all too well the importance of the moment.
“Toward the end there, every single play is the most important play of your life,” he said. “It can be a very scary thing. You’re not ruining your day; you’re ruining someone else’s day (if you mess up).”
Ryan made the play on Keppinger’s grounder and preserved the day. His clean scoop and throw to first marked the 26th consecutive out. A temporary sense of relief followed.
“I got that out, and that might as well have been Game 9 of the World Series,” Ryan said with a laugh, recalling the moment as he stared at Safeco’s infield while sitting in the Mariners’ dugout Friday afternoon.
Now, Tampa Bay’s Sean Rodriguez was the only man standing in the way of Hernandez’s perfect game. A .213 hitter this season, Rodriguez had had moderate career success (3-for-11) against Hernandez heading into Wednesday’s game. He stepped into the box, and the entire stadium felt the pressure.
With one out to go and a perfect game on the line, the common perception would be that any defensive player would hope the ball didn’t come his way. But while standing at second base, Ackley was secretly hoping for a sharp grounder that might force him to make a diving stop and throw-out at first.
“In every perfect game, there’s usually a (big) play made,” Ackley said. “There’s a diving ball in the gap or something, and I was like: if that play happens, I want to be ready for it. I want to be ready to make that play, to lay it on the line. I think everybody on our team felt that way, to do whatever it took.”
Hernandez’s first two pitches to Rodriguez missed the strike zone outside. It was looking like a walk, not a hit ball might ruin the afternoon.
Undeterred, Jaso called for two more outside pitches — a slider that Rodriguez missed, and an 83-mile-per-hour curveball that broke into the strike zone at the last millisecond. Suddenly, Hernandez was a single pitch away from perfection.
Having called for Hernandez to pound the outside of the plate on four consecutive pitches, Jaso signaled for an inside changeup and put his catcher’s mitt up in anticipation.
“He could’ve thrown a couple (different) pitches there and gotten the out,” said Jaso, a former Tampa Bay catcher who was calling pitches against several former teammates whom he knew well.
“I just felt like it was appropriate to throw the changeup; I mean, the changeup is (Hernandez’s) pitch. We wanted to go for the punchout with the changeup, inside and low in the corner of the strike zone. That was the only changeup Sean saw all day, so that froze him, and we got the punchout.”
Holding the ball in his mitt, Jaso heard the umpire call the final strike and Safeco Field went mad with excitement. All Jaso could do was drop his head and gather his thoughts.
“I couldn’t believe it happened,” he said of his delayed celebration. “I never thought I’d be catching in a perfect game. When it did happen, it was unbelievable. I just wanted to catch (the final strike), let it soak in for a second. Then I put the ball in my back pocket and went out to Felix.”
Hernandez thrust his arms toward the blue sky as he stood on the mound and got mobbed by teammates. The bullpen door opened, and Oliver Perez stumbled and fell on the warning track; Wilhelmsen nearly trampled him in blind celebration.
Then the entire team, and the 21,889 fans in attendance, showered Hernandez with one of the longest celebrations Safeco Field has seen in years.
Two days later, Hernandez was still feeling the love.
He said he’d received 120 messages and had more than 300 missed calls on his telephone. Teammates, ex-teammates, fans from Seattle to his native Venezuela — all were eager to celebrate the achievement.
“I still can’t believe it,” he said Friday afternoon. “It’s still special. And to do it here at Safeco Field, it’s even more special.”
Hernandez’s teammates were just as happy to be a part of it. But they were also relieved it was over.
“I just told someone: ‘I don’t think I ever want to go through that again,’” Ryan said with a laugh. “Jokingly. Kind of seriously, but jokingly.”
It was a ninth inning like no other. It was a perfect ninth, a perfect afternoon and a perfect memory. And by all accounts, it happened to the perfect guy.
“I just really wanted to bear-hug Felix as hard as I could,” Ryan said. “It was just really cool that day to see something historical, something so incredible happen to such a great person.”