Spurred by family's message, M's ace pitches like his entertaining self.
Starting pitchers are creatures of habit. Every fifth day, they have routines that are part superstition and part somber preparation.
When it’s their day to start, most pitchers don’t shave. They don’t smile. They don’t talk. They put on their headphones and disappear into their thoughts. They’re as anti-social as hermits.
But this Sunday was different. Sandra Hernandez had a surprise for her husband, Felix. This was Father’s Day and the Hernandez family left a message for Dad.
Hours before the game, Mariners center fielder Franklin Gutierrez coaxed Hernandez out of his routine. Told him he had to leave the clubhouse and come out to the field. There was something he needed to see.
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Grudgingly, Hernandez walked down the steps, through the tunnel and into the dugout. He could hear the low groan of an airplane that was tracing lazy circles in the air above Safeco Field.
When he looked up he saw that the plane was trailing a banner with a message from Sandra to the father of their two children, Mia and Abraham.
“KING34 YOU ARE THE BEST DAD EVER WE (heart sign) U,” the banner read.
In the dugout, with Gutierrez, catcher Miguel Olivo, pitching coach Carl Willis and trainer Rick Griffin watching, Hernandez broke out a grin that was incandescent.
“It was amazing,” Hernandez said after the game, his eyes tearing up. “It was the best gift I’ve ever had.”
It was a harbinger of the day ahead.
In his best start in almost a month, Hernandez pitched like King Felix. After a 30-pitch first inning, where the Giants dinked and dunked him for three hits and a run, he was dominant again.
“When he doesn’t dominate everybody freaks out,” said first baseman Justin Smoak, whose walkoff, ninth-inning single was the difference in this 2-1 joy ride of a game. “But this is who he is.”
When he pitches like this, Hernandez is an every-fifth-day excuse to come to the ballpark. He is the reason why a 2-1 baseball game can be so compelling.
When he is locating his fastball, buckling knees with his curve and making hitters look silly with his changeup, he is as entertaining as anybody in the game. Felix is fun. He’s contagious.
Through seven resuscitating innings, Hernandez allowed only one run and six hits. He struck out seven.
“I liked his curveball today. And I think that was a good thing. I liked his action on it,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said after the win. “Whether he was ahead early in the count or whether he was behind, he was able to drop it in there a few times.
“The fastball was good. The changeup obviously is there most of the time. I really like the way he got into it there late for us and kept the game where it was.”
Hernandez was mixing his pitches, throwing maybe his best curveballs of the year. His fastballs were clocked from 93 to 95 miles an hour. He was all fist pumps and fire, retiring 11 of the last 12 Giants he faced.
His final pitch of the afternoon, his 113th of the game, was a diabolical, diving changeup that rendered Pablo Sandoval helpless. During the at-bat, Hernandez threw him fastballs, climbing the ladder, then dropping the changeup.
It was vintage stuff.
Hernandez hadn’t pitched past the sixth inning since May 21. In his previous three starts he had allowed 14 earned runs and 24 hits in 17 innings and was 0-2 with a no-decision.
But in his last bullpen session, at Willis’ suggestion, he worked on starting his delivery with his body facing home plate. It worked.
“I was commanding my fastball today and that was the key,” Hernandez said. “When I command the fastball, then the breaking ball becomes better. The problem has been the fastball. I feel pretty good.
“I know they (his teammates) believe in me and they think I’m going to dominate every time. That’s what I have to do.”
In the first inning, Sandoval sent a soft line drive to center. Melky Cabrera followed with a lazy liner just over shortstop Brendan Ryan’s glove, and Angel Pagan scored Sandoval with another mushy base hit. It was as if the Giants were pestering Hernandez with annoying jabs.
“I was like, ‘Really? Is this happening right now?’ ” Hernandez said. “But I was like, ‘Forget about this and go out and pitch your game.’ “
On Sunday, Hernandez pitched like royalty again. The King was back. Happy Father’s Day.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org