By Larry LaRue The News Tribune
SEATTLE — The question Felix Hernandez has had throughout his career was whether his talent was as big as his dreams, because his dreams were perfect.
On Wednesday, so was his game.
Dominant from the first batter to the last, the Seattle Mariners ace held the Tampa Bay Rays without a hit or walk for nine innings — retiring all 27 batters he faced — in a 1-0 victory that pushed him into history.
It was the first perfect game in franchise history, the 23rd in major league history.
“Warming up in the bullpen before the game, everything worked,” Hernandez said. “Every game, I’m always thinking about a perfect game, but this is pretty awesome.”
A Safeco Field crowd of 21,889 was behind their pitcher from the outset, but somewhere along the way — much like the Mariners themselves — they realized they were watching something spectacular.
“Felix was hitting 95 mph with his fastball, throwing his changeup to right-handers and left-handers and his curve was nasty,” catcher John Jaso said. “When he struck out Evan Longoria in the second inning with a curve, I thought the day might be special.”
Inning after inning, Hernandez set down the side in order, and after four innings had thrown just 40 pitches. After eight innings, he’d used 98 pitches.
In the end, he threw 113 — 77 for strikes.
“I don’t care what lineup you might have put out there today, it would not have had a chance,” center fielder Michael Saunders said. “His pitches were moving all over the place.
“Every time he goes out there — and this is the God’s honest truth — I expect him to throw a no-hitter. It’s like when he gives up a hit, I think, ‘Well, he’ll throw one his next start.’
“I think he expects that, too,” Saunders said.
There was one thing Hernandez needed Wednesday he couldn’t provide for himself — a run. No matter how many consecutive outs he’d put up, Tampa’s Jeremy Hellickson was pitching nearly as well.
Shortstop Brendan Ryan, hitting .198 before his first at-bat, singled to open the third inning but, two outs later, remained at first base. With designated hitter Jesus Montero up, Ryan stole second base and scrambled all the way to third when Hellickson threw a wild pitch.
Rookie Montero singled him home for the only run of the day.
“That RBI was so important, I’ll never forget it,” Montero said. “I spent most of the rest of the game on the bench, praying with ‘Guti.’”
That would be Mariners teammate and fellow Venezuelan Franklin Gutierrez, an energetic teammate who often spends time in the clubhouse during the game.
On this day, he stayed put.
“I sat in one spot and didn’t move,” Gutierrez said. “I wasn’t even playing and I got nervous. That last batter, I kept thinking, ‘He’s going to do this!’ and he did it.”
Hernandez seemed to get stronger as he closed in on the prize. Facing the heart of the Rays’ lineup in the eighth inning — Longoria, Ben Zobrist and Carlos Pena — he struck out the side.
Opening the ninth with 24 batters retired in order, there was no one in Safeco Field unaware of the situation.
“All day, I’d been able to throw any pitch in any count for a strike,” Hernandez said. “I went out there in the ninth to throw good pitches. The fans were great, the ‘King’s Court’ was fired up.”
That particular group of fans, the yellow T-shirted denizens of the left field corner each day Hernandez pitches, had all but come unglued.
The Rays opened the ninth inning with pinch hitter Desmond Jennings.
“I was on that team that last few years,” Jaso said. “I know how they approached Felix in the past. We used that all day.”
Jennings struck out swinging.
The Rays sent up another pinch-hitter, Jeff Keppinger. Hernandez got him to swing out in front of a changeup and Keppinger grounded to shortstop — 26 batters up, 26 down.
With that crowd standing, Hernandez fell behind 2-0 in the count to third baseman Sean Rodriguez, then evened it at 2-2 and took a little walk around the mound.
Jaso called for his slider. Hernandez threw it. Rodriguez took it for a called third strike.
“I caught that final pitch and I paused,” Jaso said. “Then I thought, ‘I can’t believe that just happened!’”
“Me too!” Hernandez chimed in, and both men laughed.
Thirty minutes later, Hernandez was still a little overwhelmed, almost giddy with joy.
“The only bad thing is my wife and kids flew home last week,” he said. “I’m glad it happened here at home. The fans deserved it — so did I!”
Someone pointed out that in a Mariners career which begin in 2005, the 26-year-old Hernandez had won an American League Cy Young Award and thrown a perfect game.
What’s next? Hernandez didn’t miss a beat.
“The playoffs,” he said, still dreaming big. “That’s what’s next. The playoffs.”