This is as hard a game as any to write about. The angle is obvious: Felix Hernandez. That part is easy. We’ve all seen Felix go completely nuts before, but this was different. This was Felix at perhaps his nuttiest, or at least it was close. Nobody thought he was going to pitch his whole career and never top thirteen strikeouts, yet there really was no preparing for today. Fifteen strikeouts. Fifteen. Fifteen! It’s hard to fathom. And, as such, it’s hard to put into words a worthwhile account of what just happened in Tampa.
Seattle Mariners 5, Tampa Bay Rays 0. But that doesn’t even tell you what you need to know about this game, which is that Felix set a new career-high in strikeouts while looking absolutely ridiculous in the process. What it doesn’t tell you is that Felix didn’t even get the decision, since all the runs came in the ninth with two outs. Pitching for seven innings without a lead, Felix gave his most recent and compelling evidence that as he approaches 2,000 career innings, he’s still somehow getting better.
Fifteen strikeouts, one walk. Jeff Sullivan put together an excellent series of screencaps over at U.S.S. Mariner depicting all fifteen Ks (but not the walk). What you’ll notice is a lot of swings and misses at low pitches. You look at those images, then you glance at Felix’s walk rate, and realize that this is a guy who’s found unhittable spots, and now hits them almost all the time. Felix’s dramatic strikeout and walk improvements over the last year and a half have been entirely intentional, of course, and indicate a pitcher who’s getting better. The pitcher he was before was Cy Young-caliber.
Is Felix Hernandez the best starting pitcher on planet earth? Yeah, damn right he is. The level at which he’s currently performing is just about as good as it gets, because what’s better than 2014 Felix? A video game with all the cheat codes on, maybe. Felix, man. The Mariners are now solidly a top five AL team, and are hanging tight with the Angels and A’s in baseball’s best division. The Rangers are still around at a game under .500, but they’ve lost the whole team to injuries and have a terrible run differential.
With every passing day, the “Mariners as a playoff team” thing looks more and more real. Remember last year, when the defense was the worst in baseball and the bullpen was crap? This year, the Mariners have the seventh-best team defense in the game. They’ve got a top-ten bullpen. The offense still has obvious room for improvement, but a team doesn’t have to be perfect in order to play in October. Felix Hernandez is in the rotation. Felix Hernandez is in the rotation.
Scoreless tie, top of the ninth, two outs, Grant Balfour vs. Brad Miller. The shortstop triples, Willie Bloomquist walks, and Endy Chavez singles to break the tie. James Jones triples. Who are these players, say casual fans outside of Washington state. Robinson Cano walks, Kyle Seager doubles, and there’s five runs with two outs against the closer to break open a tie game. On Felix Day. After Felix struck out fifteen Rays.
One more time, just for fun: two strikeouts in the first, one in the second, the side in the third, two in the fourth, the side in the fifth, one in the sixth, the side in the seventh. Felix got four swinging strikeouts in a row at one point. This wasn’t Felix’s best game ever, because Felix threw a perfect game once. But this one was way, way up there. This, now, is just the latest in a career’s worth of games we’ll be talking about for years to come. This, above all else, is Felix Hernandez’s value to the Seattle Mariners and the game of baseball as a whole.
Aug 15, 2012; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez (34) celebrates the final out of a perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Safeco Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports