The night was warm and Felix Hernandez was hot, the perfect conditions for the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field.
Seattle entertained a crowd of 29,951 by adding on to its lead all evening, but no one in the ballpark had any trouble finding the center of attention.
Team ace and All-Star Hernandez opened the second half of his season with a three-hitter against one of the American League’s best offensive teams, striking out 12 without walking a batter.
“He was special, but he’s pretty much special every day,” Kyle Seager said.
Felix wasn’t just dominant, he was efficient – 68 pitches through six innings, and when he walked to the mound in the ninth he’d thrown only 96.
Beneath a still blue and cloudless sky, he retired the Rangers on two pop ups and a shattered-bat ground ball, hitting 94 mph on the stadium radar gun and sealing his seventh victory of 2012.
“I felt like I could have called his fastball every pitch,” said catcher John Jaso, who had two hits, including a solo home run. “It was moving so late. It was like it was on the plate and then it wasn’t.
“I had trouble catching some of those pitches. I can’t imagine trying to hit them.”
Neither could most of the Rangers.
Josh Hamilton went 0-for-3 with three strike outs and walked away after his final at-bat furious – at himself, not at Felix. Nelson Cruz went 0-for-3 and struck out three times.
And then there was the eternally on-going verbal battle between third baseman Adrian Beltre and Hernandez.
“We talk all the time and he told me (Friday) he was going to hit a home run against me,” Felix said. “I struck him out and nodded at him. He kind of tipped his cap. We pretty much talk after every at-bat.”
What may have been most impressive in this game was that, clearly, Hernandez got better as the night wore on. One time through the Texas lineup he’d allowed one hit and struck out two batters. Over the next six innings, he allowed two singles – and struck out 10.
“I was throwing a little harder tonight and I felt like I could throw any pitch in any count for a strike.”
Told at one point 10 of 13 outs were strikeouts, Felix beamed.
“Awesome!” he said.
Darvish wasn’t, and the Mariners made him work and pay for it.
“Command,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said of the first inning. “They loaded the bases on a walk, single and hit batter,”
“We’ve gotten ourselves into the position of scoring runs and tonight we delivered,” Seager said. “The difference between a good offensive team and a bad one is coming through. Tonight, we did what we were supposed to do.”
Jaso worked Darvish for a walk to force in Seattle’s first run and Michael Saunders pushed in a second with a ground ball first baseman Michael Young couldn’t handle.
With one out and the Mariners up 2-0, Seager singled home two runs his 53rd and 54th RBI of the year.
“We were able to be patient and get ahead in the count, and when he made a mistake, we didn’t miss,” Dustin Ackley said.
As the game wore on, the Mariners added on. An Ackley RBI double in the fourh inning, Jaso’s fourth home run of the season in the fifth, an RBI double for Saunders in the seventh.
“Darvish wasn’t sharp and we didn’t help him,” manager Eric Wedge said. “We went up there ready to hit but were patient enough to let his command issues help us.”
And then, there was Hernandez.
“The best fastball I’ve seen him have,” Wedge said. “I know I’ve said it a few times now, but that’s the best I’ve seen him pitch. When he got to two strikes on a hitter, he finished him off.”
By the numbers, Felix has been better than his 7-5 record, his 2.92 earned run average. For instance?
This was the seventh time this season he’d pitched at least eight innings and allowed one run or less – the most in the majors. It was his third 12-strikeout game, and his 140 strikeouts this year lead the majors.
Over his last six starts, Felix is 3-0 with a 1.40 ERA, with 56 strikeouts in 45 innings.
“He was sharp, struck out 12, got four fly balls and the defense certainly didn’t have to do much,” Washington said. “I tip my hat to King Felix.”