Emotions crushed Felix Hernandez's effort at precise upkeep during one of the biggest days of his life.
The Seattle Mariners' star right-hander wore a tailored tan suit beneath his just-cut hair. After signing a seven-year, $175 million contract to stay in Seattle — the only place he's played professionally — Hernandez had to hunt for breath and spit out words as his eyes filled with tears during a press conference in Safeco Field on Feb. 13, 2013.
"I'm not going to disappoint anybody," Hernandez said. "I'm going to do my best, more than my best … to … get to the point of playoffs. I will do my best. I'm telling you this, we're going to make the playoffs. We're going in the right direction."
Then the team won 71 games.
A year later, Hernandez's proclamation is proving accurate. He's blown through the American League and the Mariners are grappling for the second wild card spot. Friday, he'll take the mound where he's thrown a perfect game, and dominated for almost a decade, to face the visiting Washington Nationals in the opener of a three-game series in Seattle.
Most of the Nationals have not faced Hernandez's four-pitch repertoire that produces headshakes and frustration. Those who have only show how difficult it is.
Nationals outfielder Denard Span is 2-for-22 (.091) in his career against Hernandez. Infielder Asdrubal Cabrera is 3-for-20 (.150). They've struck out a combined 13 times in those at-bats.
In addition to Span and Cabrera, Hernandez has faced Adam LaRoche, Kevin Frandsen, Scott Hairston and Jose Lobaton. They are a combined 2-for-13 with five strikeouts.
But, don't scoff at the inability of Span, Cabrera and company against Hernandez. They're more the norm than outliers against "King Felix," particularly this season.
After redefining the criteria for the Cy Young Award in 2010 when he won the honor despite a 13-12 record, Hernandez is steamrolling toward a second. His video-game numbers have him as the clear favorite at this point: 2.07 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, .196 batting average against, .238 on-base percentage against. Hernandez, 28, is averaging a career-high 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings. He's averaging a career-low 1.6 walks.
The main reason for his demolition of the American League is his changeup, or "cambio" as he calls it in Spanish. It's a diabolical pitch that produces outs, embarrassment and confusion.
Hernandez has thrown his changeup 31.1 percent of the time this season, an eight percent increase from last year. Its average speed is 89 mph. It looks precisely like his fastball out of his hand prior to dropping like a hefty, hanging sack suddenly cut loose.
Batters are hitting .097 against the changeup this season. Those are the outs.
Back in 2010, when Hernandez was on his way to his first Cy Young, Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia was once almost hit by the pitch — after he completed his swing. That's the embarrassment.
"It started away in the other batter's box," said Pedroia, simultaneously disgusted and amazed.
The confusion comes postgame or the next day. Players call it a split-finger (it's not). They have a hard time labeling it a changeup because it travels too fast. Often, "whatever you call that thing" is the settled-on nomenclature.
Hernandez was a 19-year-old power pitcher when the Mariners called him up in 2005. He supplemented a high-90s fastball with a hard curveball. Over time, his fastball velocity has decreased, a detriment he countered with better movement and command. He now has squatter's rights to both edges of the plate.
Teams like the patient Oakland Athletics will flip their gameplans against him in the middle innings. Earlier this season, he had a six-pitch inning against Oakland, an almost unheard-of swift dismissal of the major leagues' team leader in walks.
Hernandez is not a pregame strategist who deciphers the past patterns of opponents, though. Despite previously facing just six members of the Nationals' roster, he will not spend time rewinding tape.
"I don't really watch video," Hernandez said Wednesday. "I don't really see any scouting report. I just go out there with my plan. I've been around the league for a little while. I think I know a lot of players."
Hernandez heads the majors' best pitching staff. He's backed by Hisashi Iwakuma, who finished third in Cy Young voting last season and has a 2.83 ERA in large part because of command (13 walks in 149⅓ innings this season) and a wipeout split-finger fastball. He'll oppose Tanner Roark on Sunday. Right-hander Chris Young (12-6, 3.17 ERA) is on the mound Saturday against Stephen Strasburg. The Nationals cut Young in spring training.
When Hernandez pitches in Seattle, a section down the left-field line is labeled, "King's Court." Fans in those seats wear yellow T-shirts and chant "K! K! K!" whenever there are two strikes. The section will be expanded Friday night when the Nationals arrive with the best record in the NL.
Hernandez will also carry his emotions to the mound. He often will slap his glove in celebration of a big out while shouting in Spanish. In addition to being the franchise's face, he's also its competitive soul.
After dropping a series to the last-place Texas Rangers earlier in the week, Seattle's three games against the Nationals are crucial. The Mariners have not made the playoffs since 2001. Hernandez is trying to stave off postseason thoughts.
"Actually, I'm not thinking about that yet," Hernandez said. "I think it's going to be unbelievable [if we make it]. Our offense has been pretty good. We've got a pretty good chance to make it. I'm just happy for the team and going to be ready for it."
The Nationals will need to be ready Friday night.
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