By Shannon Drayer
We witnessed something special Wednesday. We knew it was coming, sometime; Felix Hernandez is just too good. In truth, he has been unhittable on many occasions but sometimes a bat finds ball due to blind luck. Wednesday, under a perfect blue sky, Felix gave us something that we will never forget. He bypassed the no-hitter and went straight to perfection. Twenty-seven up, twenty-seven down, not one with any shot at doing any damage. Felix was in command start to finish.
We felt it early. In the broadcast booth, without saying the words there was talk we could be watching history. It wasn’t the first time, but this was something different. As the game went on, I became less nervous that we would see someone break through. This was Felix’s game. John Jaso said his breaking pitches were impossible to hit. Jesus Montero, in the past, has called the changeup the “invisible pitch.” Felix had them all today.
I decided to go down to the camera well for the walk off interview an inning early. I wanted to see it up close. Felix got out to the hill quickly for him in both the eighth and ninth innings. He wanted the ball. He wanted to throw the next pitch. He was calm and collected on the mound. He wasn’t breathing hard and he didn’t look like he was fighting any emotions.
Watching Felix pitch, I couldn’t help but think back to when we first met him: Big kid, overpowering stuff – and not a lot of finesse – but you knew that would come. I thought of his first spring training outing when his hat fell off with each pitch. He was horribly embarrassed, but picked up his hat each time it fell off and kept pitching.
I thought of his debut in Detroit and attempting to interview him the next day. I thought about him showing up at the pre-spring training press conference in 2007 leaner and interview ready. His English had improved remarkably and he was just as proud of that as he was his new physique. He was growing up. I am not sure when exactly he went from kid to King, but it wasn’t a surprise. The beautiful part is the kid is still in there. He has great balance on the field and off.
Felix finished the eighth inning with an at bat that I watched with fascination. Carlos Pena came to the plate having watched Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist strikeout before him. He looked at a 95 mph fastball just out of the zone for his first pitch. At that point, he had a chance. Then came the curve. He put a good swing on but came up empty. He turned to the umpire and asked if he had swung at a strike. Pena was looking for any help, any advantage he could get with the next pitch. The problem was that next pitch could have been anything. He got the changeup. Another swing came up empty and again he turned to the umpire and again asked where the pitch was. Down 1-2 he fouled off a sinker and then Felix came back with the curve. He swung again and again found nothing but air. He was out number three of the inning, twenty four in the game and all he could do was flip his bat toward the pitching mound.
In the ninth, Felix breezed through the first two outs with Desmond Jennings, Jeff Keppinger, and Sean Rodriguez not even looking at each other as they passed on the way to the batter’s box or dugout. They had nothing. Nothing that could help. Their fates were sealed before they put the bat on their shoulders. Felix made quick work of Jennings and Keppinger, then conquered his final challenge. After falling behind 2-0 to Sean Rodriguez, he threw a slider, curve and changeup, for a swing and two looks. It was over. Felix kissed his wrists to honor his son and daughter and threw his arms in the air.
He showed every bit of emotion during the on field celebrations that I would expect him too. Overjoyed would be an understatement. His teammates, with no one holding back, mobbed him but were far more careful than with hitters after walk off wins. They love this guy. After the jumping up and down, there were hugs with Felix taking the time to embrace every teammate and every staff member.
Felix dutifully and pleasantly fulfilled every interview duty he had, from local TV and radio to the nationals who were standing by. He held court in the interview about 20 minutes after the game and then returned to the clubhouse to continue the celebration with his teammates, but only for a short while. About an hour after the game, he was back on the field for another MLB TV interview and he joined the grounds crew for a picture on the mound.
To the side of the field, the bases were lined up and there were buckets that would be filled with dirt from the mound. The bases, dirt, balls from the game, jerseys and pitching mound no doubt, will be saved with some of it going to the Hall of Fame. Because that’s what happens on special days.
(Top photo courtesy Ted S. Warren, AP Photo)