`King Felix' reigns in Seattle at tender age of 19

Youngest starter in majors since '84, Mariner shows poise beyond his years


September 11, 2005|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

SEATTLE - There has been just one inning in his brief major league career in which Seattle Mariners pitching phenom Felix Hernandez actually acted his age.

A little more than a month ago in his major league debut against the Detroit Tigers, the 19-year-old right-hander had faced four batters, surrendered a run and still hadn't been able to get an out. For a couple of fleeting minutes, Hernandez, the youngest big league starter since Jose Rijo in 1984, looked rattled and overmatched.

"Only time I've ever seen that," said Mariners outfielder Jamal Strong. "But after he got out of that inning, he was the same Felix."

Since that debut, the "same Felix" has become the talk of this city, making the homestretch of another forgettable Mariners season a little more bearable. They call the Venezuelan "King Felix" and imagine a future of him reigning over the mound every five days, his curly coif of jet black hair that is not fully contained by a Mariners cap and a dangling necklace flopping with every pitch.

Hernandez (3-2, 1.59 ERA), who will make his eighth career start today against the Orioles, throws a fastball in the high 90s, a changeup in the low- to mid-80s and a curveball that drops from the hitter's eye much quicker than it arrives.

As Seattle manager Mike Hargrove said succinctly on Friday: "It's all there."

And that includes the poise, which can make Hernandez's teammates forget they are witnessing the birth of a teenager on the biggest of stages. Hernandez keeps to himself in the clubhouse and has shown little interest in promoting himself. In interviews, he usually speaks through a translator.

"At 19, you have to be impressed with how he handles himself here and how he goes about his business," said Mariners veteran closer Eddie Guardado. "I saw him in spring training this year and he was a young kid, trying to overthrow a little, trying to impress. But he came here throwing nothing but strikes. He's been absolutely tremendous. A guy like Felix comes along every 10 years."

Hernandez signed with the Mariners as an undrafted free agent in July 2004, not long after he graduated from high school in the Venezuelan baseball hotbed of Valencia, also the hometown of Oriole Melvin Mora. The New York Yankees were among several teams that tried to sign him, but Seattle, which had the best bargaining tool with Freddy Garcia, Hernandez's countryman and pitching idol, on its staff at the time, outbid everybody with a reported $710,000 offer.

With Hernandez (6 feet 3, 225 pounds) dominating Triple-A hitters with Tacoma, going 9-4 with a 2.25 ERA and striking out 100 in 88 innings this year, the Mariners decided that the minor leagues' top-rated pitching prospect was ready. They just didn't expect this.

"He is throwing the ball better here than anywhere else he has ever pitched," said Seattle pitching coach Bryan Price. "I think that's a matter of a 19-year-old making sure that nobody treats him as a 19-year-old."

Hernandez needn't worry about that, not as the comparisons between him and past pitching prodigies grow by the day. Making the comparison heard most often, one scout recently said that Hernandez was the best rookie pitcher he had seen since Dwight Gooden debuted for the New York Mets. However, Hernandez, the scout maintained, is slightly better.

Guardado hadn't seen enough of Gooden to concur, but he did compare Hernandez favorably with another Cy Young winner.

"I saw Johan Santana come up [with the Minnesota Twins] when he was 20 years old and he had some great stuff, but I think Felix is more polished than Johan was," Guardado said. "His stuff is electric, but what impresses me is how he handles himself. You'd think he's been around for a while."

Hernandez has allowed just 31 hits and 10 walks and struck out 50 in 51 innings. He hasn't allowed more than three runs in any of his seven big league outings.

He struck out 11 Royals in a victory Aug. 15, and pitched a combined 15 shutout innings in silencing the Oakland Athletics and the Twins last month. After watching Hernandez, Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire scoffed at questions about the rookie's poise.

"I don't think we're talking about poise here," Gardenhire said. "I think we're talking about a 97-mph fastball with a curveball from hell."

However, Hernandez's most memorable performance might have come in a loss. Before a packed house at Safeco Field - attendance has been up on days that he pitches - that came to see the Mariners' future ace oppose their former one, New York's Randy Johnson, Hernandez went eight innings against the Yankees' vaunted lineup, allowing only four hits.

But two of those hits were bases-empty home runs and he was out-dueled, 2-0, by the Yankees and Johnson, who picked the occasion to regain his own, youthful form.

"The guy's throwing 97, 98 without trying," Johnson said later. "I am grunting and throwing 95. What he has the ability to do is endless."

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