Before Felix Hernandez could realize his place in baseball history and satiate a fan-base that waited nearly three years for this very afternoon...
DETROIT — Before Felix Hernandez could realize his place in baseball history and satiate a fan base that waited nearly three years for this very afternoon, he had one pressing issue to take care of.
His first out.
There the 19-year-old stood, baseball’s youngest starting pitcher since 1978, on the mound at Comerica Park. Bases loaded. No outs. One run already in.
Mariners pitching coach Bryan Price walked toward the top pitching prospect in all of baseball and searched his baby face for any hint of worry or concern. Finding none, Price returned to the dugout, his first impression better than expected.
And by the end, after Hernandez justified all the hype and hoopla his debut accumulated, after he allowed only one earned run and still lost 3-1 to the Tigers in front of 28,148, that’s what the Mariners came away with. That their future ace will not be ruffled easily. Even with history in the balance and the baseball world watching closely.
“He looked more nervous and hyped up in his first spring-training start,” Price said. “I was pleased with how he handled himself. Whether you’re 29 or 19, that’s pretty darn impressive.”
After the first inning ended in a rare 3-2-3 double play and his first major-league strikeout, Hernandez settled in. One by one, established hitters like Carlos Guillen and Ivan Rodriguez sidled next to Mariners catcher Wiki Gonzalez in the batter’s box and whispered sweet nothings, like “the kid can pitch” and “the kid’s got stuff.”
Felix Hernandez became the third 19-year-old starting pitcher in the majors since 1984, joining Dwight Gooden (’84) and Todd Van Poppel (’91). Notable numbers and firsts (times PDT):
10:13: first pitch, a strike to Placido Polanco
10:14: first hit allowed, a single by Polanco
10:23: first run allowed, by Polanco
10:23: first mound conference, with Bryan Price
10:26: first strikeout, Ivan Rodriguez
81: pitch count, 49 strikes
5: innings pitched
3: hits allowed
2: runs allowed, 1 earned
2: walks allowed
1: hit batters
Next start: tentatively Tuesday in Seattle
“I was saying that earlier today,” Gonzalez said. “Maybe in 10 years, 15 years, I’ll be sitting on my couch, watching TV, and I’ll be able to tell my kids I caught his first game. The first game of a possible future Hall of Famer.”
On Wednesday, Price said no Mariners debut in recent memory compared to this one, except when Ken Griffey Jr. trotted out to center field in 1989.
Justification came during the next four innings, when Hernandez allowed only three more base runners, struck out Detroit cleanup hitter Magglio Ordonez and shut down a potent Tigers lineup with “stuff” atypical of his age.
Hernandez also used breaking balls when behind in counts, mixing fastballs that topped out at 97 mph with curveballs that bit like sarcasm and changeups that hung as if suspended in midair. He threw 81 pitches in five innings, giving up three hits and two runs (one earned), while striking out four, walking two and hitting one.
“He got better as he went along,” manager Mike Hargrove said. “The good ones do that.”
And here’s the really crazy part. Gonzalez caught Hernandez regularly in Class AAA Tacoma, and the Hernandez he saw yesterday was not Hernandez at his best. Gonzalez said the youngster “did not have his best stuff today,” was “a little hyper” and “had trouble commanding his fastball.”
What impressed the Mariners was his improvement from spring training, relying less on his fastball and the demeanor that never changes.
“He’s been the same every time I’ve ever seen him, except his hair is shorter than it was in spring training,” Hargrove said. “He’s not a real demonstrative kind of guy. He projects well.”
Added Price: “Being special isn’t just about throwing 97 miles per hour. Being special is about composure and being able to throw breaking balls when you’re behind in the count for strikes. He’s so much more polished than anyone his age.”
That polish and demeanor didn’t change after the debut hit the history books. Hernandez pulled on a black suit outside his locker and tried to not crack a smile for reporters as he mixed answers in English and Spanish.
He said he felt nervous, but those nerves vanished after the first pitch. He said it took an inning to adjust to a smaller strike zone than expected. He pointed to his strikeout of Ordonez as a highlight.
“I know I pitched well, and I know I had a good game, but I can’t be too happy because the team lost,” Hernandez said.
With a little help, Hernandez might have won. But the Mariners’ only run came off Raul Ibanez’s 100th career home run in the top of the seventh. And the second run off Hernandez came when Gonzalez let a curveball slide past him for a passed ball with Placido Polanco on third base.
The Mariners cuffed Hernandez with an 85-pitch limit yesterday, in part because he suffered from bursitis in his throwing shoulder earlier this season. In his next outing — likely Tuesday in Seattle — Hernandez will be limited to between 95 and 100 pitches, Hargrove said.
“He needs to pitch,” Hargrove said. “That’s what he’s needed all along. We’ll give him an opportunity to do that every five days.”
Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or email@example.comM’s rousing rookies
Felix Hernandez continues a legacy of highly anticipated Mariners rookies that dates to Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Ichiro. How each did in his first big-league game:
Ken Griffey Jr.
April 3, 1989, at Oakland
Replay: Griffey goes 1 for 3 in a 3-2 loss to Oakland A’s, hitting a double to center field in his second at-bat and sending two other shots to the warning track. He also walked and scored a run.
What he said: “As I reached second, I said to myself, ‘So this is what it’s like.’ “
July 8, 1994, at Boston’s Fenway Park
Replay: Went 0 for 3 in a 4-3 loss to Boston, grounding out twice and flying out. He was flawless defensively, and on his first two chances, started a 6-4-3 double play, then went deep in the hole to throw out a runner at first.
What he said: “I’ll never forget it. I loved everything but the score.”
April 2, 2001, at Safeco Field
Replay: Went 1 for 4 in a 5-4 win over Oakland, with a hard single up the middle in his third at-bat. Also put down a perfect sacrifice bunt in the eighth that forced a throwing error and led to the winning run.
What he said: “We used to talk back home of being teammates together some day. But to have a hand in a win in our first game together is unbelievable.” — Ichiro, referring to fellow Japan native Kazu Sasaki making his M’s debut the same day.