Five years ago Tuesday, Hernandez was as good as he has ever been, perhaps as good as any pitcher has ever been. Only 23 pitchers in history have thrown a perfect game, and on this day, a sainted day in Mariners history, King Felix joined the club.
Felix Hernandez remembers every nuance, every pitch, every tingle.
And why not? Five years ago Tuesday, he was as good as he has ever been, perhaps as good as any pitcher has ever been. Only 23 pitchers in history have thrown a perfect game, and on this day, a sainted day in Mariners history, King Felix joined the club.
It was a day game at Safeco Field against the Tampa Bay Rays, a ripe opponent for such a gem, considering they had been the victim of four no-hitters (two of them perfectos) over the previous four years. But they also were contending for a playoff berth, on the way to a 95-win season, with some formidable bats.
The Mariners were familiar themselves with perfectos, having been victimized on April 21 of the same year by the unlikeliest of foes — journeyman Philip Humber of the White Sox. It was the 12th of just 16 games Humber would win in his major-league career, which ended unceremoniously the next season, when he lost for good whatever he found that one day in Seattle.
Felix, on the other hand, was in the absolute prime of a potential Hall of Fame career on Aug. 15, 2012, and in full control of his powers. Twenty-seven Rays hitters came to the plate, and 27 were retired as the Mariners won 1-0 on a run they pushed across in the third inning.
Here, in the words of many participants, is their recollection of that day:
Felix Hernandez: “Warming up in the bullpen, Carl (pitching coach Carl Willis) told me, ‘You’ve got good stuff today.’ I said, ‘Yeah, not bad.’ But I almost lost the perfect game on the first batter. Sam Fuld. He hit a liner to the gap in right-center. I mean, the sun was right there. There were shadows. I thought, ‘No way. First batter, and he hits a double.’ But (Eric) Thames made a good catch. After that, everything was easy.”
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Sam Fuld, ex-Rays left fielder: “I remember thinking, I can’t hit a ball a whole lot better than that. Off the bat, I thought it was a double, triple or homer for sure. I was a little frustrated. I knew the opportunities to square up Felix were few and far between.”
Eric Thames, ex-Mariners outfielder now with the Brewers: “In the first inning, you’re loose, but not really loose. There was a little bit of a shadow in right field. I remember seeing the ball kind of go through the roof and then, ‘Oh, there it is.’ I made a nice running catch to get it. I just ran it down. For a minute, I thought I might have to dive for it. It turned out to be the play of the game, because after that, Felix just carved them up.”
Hernandez: “As soon as I started the game, I was in the strike zone. I didn’t shake off Jaso (catcher John Jaso) one time. He called the pitch, I’d throw the pitch. I didn’t even walk around the mound. Just grab the ball, pitch. Grab the ball, pitch.”
John Jaso, ex-Mariners catcher now with the Pirates: “I just remember Felix’s stuff being unbelievable, his curveball above everything else. It was snapping it off pretty good. Guys were swinging and missing. I remember (Carlos) Pena and (Evan) Longoria swinging and missing by like two feet, it seemed like.”
Carlos Pena, ex-Rays first baseman now with MLB Network: “The word that kept coming to mind was helpless. That’s basically the way you feel. It’s like, OK, I’m going down, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. It’s the worst feeling. He was absolutely dominant. Even though we had the at-bats, it felt like he was the one on offense and it was us playing defense. It felt like we were totally drowning. A very suffocating, asphyxiating feeling. You want to tell your teammates to slow it down, but it didn’t matter what we did; the ship was going to go down.”
Evan Longoria, Rays third baseman: “His stuff was electric, what you’d expect on a day like that. It kind of had the feeling from the beginning that it was going to be a tough day to hit or score runs or be productive.”
Jaso: “We got on the same page and he started going super quick and really smooth. There was only one scary count, 3-2 to Matt Joyce, and he grounded out to first base. What was so cool, we’d go in the dugout and he was still talking to people. I think he was nervous, but he was not changing up his routine. He was keeping his personality real. Felix was staying light and cheering on his teammates and things like that.”
Hernandez: “I knew in the fourth inning I had something going on.”
Tom Foley, Rays coach: “I remember the ump at third base (Andy Fletcher), in the fourth or fifth inning, he said, ‘We could see something today.’ And I said, ‘You’re right, we could see something. He’s got really good (stuff).’ I don’t think we were in too many hitters’ counts. And when we were, he dotted it up.”
Fuld: “To this day, when someone asks who I hated facing most, I say Felix. For me and for everyone else, it was the splitter or changeup or whatever you call it, that was the pitch that gave you the most nightmares. But that day, his breaking ball was really working, too, both slider and curveball. As the game went on, he lived off those pitches. He was starting everyone with a breaking ball, and not just a ‘get me over’ pitch. Every one was sharp. We were dealing with four plus-plus pitches … guys looked pretty silly by the end of the day.”
Thames: “Watching Felix in his prime, like that, was amazing. He was just nasty. They didn’t have much of a chance. When it got to a three-ball count, we just said, ‘Throw a strike!’ We didn’t want anything to mess it up. Back in those days, you knew he had a chance to do something special every time he pitched.”
Trayvon Robinson, ex-Mariners outfielder now playing for the independent Lancaster Barnstormers of the Atlantic League: “Felix was like a rock star. There was an aura about him in those days. That was the most nerve-wracking game I was ever a part of. I didn’t realize what was happening until the seventh inning. Fernando Rodney was in the Rays’ bullpen and he said to me, ‘You know he’s got a perfect game going.’ I didn’t know, man. After that, I was thinking, ‘This is the day I run through a wall and break something.’ I was ready for it.”
Brendan Ryan, ex-Mariners shortstop now playing for the Toledo Mud Hens of the International League: “It was super nerve-wracking. You feel like you can only screw it up. At that point, we had a really young infield, and I didn’t want to exude any nerves. I tried to remind myself to look casual.”
Jaso: “One thing that stuck out, it was a day game during the week and not that many people were in the stands. But as the game progressed, it seemed like the stadium kept getting fuller and fuller. I don’t know if people were leaving work to see history.”
Hernandez: “The most scary play was in the seventh inning, the ball B.J. Upton hit between third and shortstop. (Kyle) Seager dived for it, and then Brendan Ryan grabbed it and threw to first. (First baseman Justin) Smoak made a good pick. If Kyle tipped it, it was going to be a base hit.”
Kyle Seager, Mariners third baseman: “You can’t let a ball go through the infield without at least diving for it. I wasn’t even close to it. I remember diving thinking that was the end of it. And then looking up and there’s Brendan seemingly out of nowhere. He had a knack for that, too. He had probably a better chance of back-handing and throwing him out at first than me diving, even if I caught it. I’m sure it worked out in every way.”
Ryan: “I remember that play like it just happened 10 seconds ago. I wasn’t like I had to range for it and throw goofy-footed across the diamond. I remember him penguin diving, and me catching it and then looking at him, like, ‘What are you doing?’ and then throwing to first. I don’t remember it being over-the-top difficult, but if Kyle catches a piece of it, I think it would have gone out of glove reach and trickled into shallow left. I think it speaks to how badly we wanted it for him. Maybe it was a ball he over-pursued, if that’s a phrase or word. Luckily, he didn’t get a piece of it.”
Later in the inning, Rays manager Joe Maddon came out to argue with plate umpire Rob Drake on a strike-one call to Joyce. Maddon was ejected but continue the argument for a few minutes while Mariners manager Eric Wedge screamed from the dugout for him to go back to the bench. The Mariners felt Maddon was trying to disrupt Hernandez’s rhythm.
Ryan: “No question about it. No question about it. Obviously, Maddon is a super intelligent guy, and no one wants to get a perfecto thrown against them. Everyone sensed, ‘Oh boy, this is one of those games Felix has it going.’ I’m sure he thought, ‘We have to disrupt him in some way.’ But Felix struck him out and kept rolling. You don’t do what he did through the years without being mentally tough and able to control moments.”
Longoria: “It always seems like those days — and I’ve been a part of three or four of them, a couple other no-hitters — I don’t remember who the umpire was, but Felix was getting an inch or two on either side. It was a perfect storm, like everything came together. He was able to throw the ball exactly where he wanted to. He was getting a little bit of help; he wasn’t getting a lot of help. But when a guy’s that good on a given day and he can put it exactly where he wants it, any little advantage he can get is a huge one.”
Hernandez: “When I got to the eighth, it got to my mind. And when I came out for the ninth, I had chills. The crowd was cheering like crazy. I thought, ‘I’ve gone this far, I’ve got to go out there and finish it.’ That was in my mind.”
Jaso: “Hellickson (Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson) threw a gem that day, too, and it was 1-0 when he went out for the ninth. I told myself, the biggest thing is making sure he gets the win. Put all the perfect game stuff out of your head. After that, I felt calm. It was like the butterflies went away. I went out there like it was the first inning of any other game.”
It was a perfect storm, like everything came together. He was able to throw the ball exactly where he wanted to.” - Evan Longoria
Hernandez struck out pinch-hitter Desmond Jennings to start the ninth. Pinch-hitter Jeff Keppinger grounded out to Ryan at shortstop. That brought up Sean Rodriguez.
Hernandez: “I went 2-0 on Rodriguez. I was like, ‘Oh, geez, 2-0.’ Jaso called slider. ‘OK, 2-0 slider? All right, let’s do it.’ (Snaps fingers.) Slider, swing and a miss. 2-1. He called curveball. ‘Curveball 2-1. All right. Let’s do that.’ (Snaps fingers.) I threw that curveball, he take it for a strike. He knew what was coming with the changeup, and I struck him out. It was awesome. I still remember every pitch, every out, all that stuff. The thing I did, with my leg, I don’t know how that came. I kissed my wrist, a kiss for my son and my daughter. I put my hands in the air. It was unbelievable.”
Thames: “The last out, it was like, ‘Oh, my goodness. He did it.’ It was wild afterward. But in the moment you’re just so aware. ‘OK, if the ball is hit anywhere near me, I have to dive.’ ”
Robinson: “I kind of blacked out. Once I saw the called strike and saw Felix put his hands in the air, I don’t know where I put my glove. I probably threw it in the stands or something. It was like a huge sigh of relief.”
Pena: “It was truly frustrating, excruciatingly painful — and at the same time, I must admit, it’s embarrassing. But then it’s a feeling of relief. That’s weird. You got punched around and then defeated. You gave it all you had and you’re exhausted. However, you’re like, ‘It’s over.’ Frustrated, angry, upset, embarrassed, discouraged and then relieved.”
Fuld: “You hate to be on the losing end, but especially now that I’m done playing, and look back at certain games and little highlights, slash lowlights, of my career, that’s definitely one that sticks out. It’s cool to be part of something as rare as a perfect game. It was getaway day, and I remember talking to guys in the clubhouse, on the bus and the plane. We were right in the playoff mix, and every win or loss mattered at the time. At the same time, we all said to each other, ‘That was pretty special.’ It was actually fun to be part of.”
Jaso: “When he got that strike call on Sean, it was just an explosion of emotions. On my part, definitely. When I looked up and saw him, it was a great moment. One of the favorite pictures of my whole career is me and him grabbing each other and yelling. I have it in glass and framed.”
Hernandez: “We had a beer shower in the clubhouse. We call it a beer shower, but it was everything — beer, ice. My wife, a week before, had flown to Venezuela with the kids. She called me right away, crying. She didn’t even know. The game was not televised in Venezuela that day. They put it on the air about the sixth inning. My wife called my sister, called my mom, ‘Are you watching? Are you watching? Are you watching Abraham — they call me Abraham, they don’t call me Felix — I think Abraham is throwing a perfect game.’ She was so excited she couldn’t even talk. I didn’t leave to my house until about 9:30. I was just talking to everybody. Celebrating.”
Ryan: “I think there was relief from a lot of the position guys, which speaks to how badly we wanted it for him. Just jubilation. Pure joy. Out of nowhere to spin part of history. … It was a celebration for him, for each other, and a lot us were kind of in awe, just trying to realize the moment. We were looking at each other, like, ‘That really took place.’ It was for real. That game counted, it was not a nonsense spring-training game. Then we realized we’d all be kind of attached to Felix in some special way forever.”
Jaso: “He was such a fantastic teammate. I remember if someone made an error behind him, he’d make a point to find him on the bench and say, ‘Don’t worry about it, you picked me up so many other times.’ Talent comes and goes, your best stuff comes and goes, but that’s something that’s definitely in your power to bring to the field every day. And that’s why we were so happy for him.”
Hernandez: “In all the history of baseball, there have only been 23. Just to be part of that group, it’s amazing. When I got the last strikeout, Brendan ran in from shortstop and screamed, ‘You did it, Buddy! You did it! You did it!’ Smoak told me, ‘Dude, don’t do that anymore. I was so nervous.’ Everybody was nervous. You should be. You don’t want to make an error or boot a ball. But it was perfect. It was perfect.”