SEATTLE – Yes, Felix Hernandez has the fastball.
He pushes the scoreboard readings to 96, 97 and 98 mph, dazzling for anyone and awe-inspiring considering it’s a 19-year-old throwing those pitches.
Hernandez is more than speed, and he showed the whole package Monday night for the Seattle Mariners.
As impressive with his breaking pitches and overall control as he was with the sheer might of his fastball, Hernandez had the Kansas City Royals waving and guessing in an 11-3 Mariners victory at Safeco Field.
The Venezuelan teen, already the ace of a pitching staff that has been looking for one, is 2-1 with a 0.86 earned run average in his three starts since the Mariners called him up from Class AAA Tacoma 13 days ago. He held the Royals to three hits and a run, and struck out 11 in eight innings.
Fans hung up “K” signs for each of the strike outs.
“I don’t pay any attention to the hype and I just try to go out and have a good game,” Hernandez said. “I’m always thinking of the out. If I get the strikeout then that’s great. But I don’t try to always strike people out.”
The four-seam fastball lit the speed board as usual, but Hernandez’s sinking two-seam fastball, his curve and changeup made the difference.
“He’s throwing a 96, 97 mph two-seamer,” manager Mike Hargrove said. “He commands that pitch, and it’s unfair. Plus, he has an 86 (mph) curveball. And he got one strikeout on a 3-2 changeup.”
The Mariners are reluctant to heap too much praise on their prodigy, but Hernandez has quickly shown them that he’s a pitcher – not a thrower – beyond his years.
“The way he carries himself is not arrogantly, but it’s confidently,” Hargrove said. “And then you look into his eyes and at his face, and you realize he’s just a pup.”
Hernandez’s 11 strikeouts were the most by a Mariners pitcher this year and one short of Freddy Garcia’s team record for a rookie starter. Hernandez has struck out 21 in three starts, and the impressive part Monday is that he didn’t just blow the Royals away.
OK, he did to the first hitter of the game, David DeJesus, with a 97 mph fastball. Then Hernandez worked the Royals with all of his stuff, getting ahead early in the count and mixing fastballs with curves and changeups.
He fanned the second hitter, Chip Ambres, on a called-strike curveball. He got strike three with his curve six times, and once he got a hitter, Mark Teahen, to swing through a full-count changeup.
He finished eight of his 11 strikeouts with offspeed pitches, and four of those were called third strikes.
Still ahead for Hernandez are teams that don’t rank near the bottom of the league in hitting, as his past two opponents, the Royals (who have lost 16 straight) and Twins.
Same with the scouting reports that will circulate as teams become aware of what Hernandez throws.
The Mariners know that someday he may not have command of all those pitches in the same game, or that an opponent will get him in a serious jam.
“I have no desire to see how he handles failure,” Hargrove said.
There was a chance of it in the seventh inning when Mike Sweeney and Emil Brown led off with back-to-back singles. Hernandez then got two ground-ball outs – one that drove in a run – and he struck out Teahen for the second time.
“The thing that has amazes me about him is not the strikeouts,” pitching coach Bryan Price said. “Guys with stuff like him will miss some bats around the league. But he gets a lot of ground balls, and that’s an unusual combination, a power pitcher being a strikeout-ground ball pitcher rather than a strikeout-fly ball pitcher.”
The Mariners gave Hernandez plenty of support, both offensively and defensively.
Mike Morse, Richie Sexson and Ichiro Suzuki each hit two-run home runs, and the Mariners clubbed 13 hits off four Royals pitchers.
On defense, Yuniesky Betancourt showed the glove, the range and the arm that make the Mariners drool at what he brings to the infield.
Betancourt, starting at second base even though the M’s see him as their shortstop of the future, ranged far to make four spectacular plays, none better than what he pulled off in the fourth inning when Sweeney hit a bouncer up the middle.
Betancourt lunged and caught the ball behind the bag at second and, with his momentum carrying him toward left field, seemed to have little chance at getting Sweeney at first. Instead, Betancourt unleashed an underhand strike to first base that drew comparisons to softball pitching great Eddie Feigner, the star of The King and His Court.
On Monday, Betancourt was part of the court.
Hernandez was king.