John McGrath

John McGrath: Felix Hernandez continues to ascend ranks of game’s best

Felix Hernandez was denied the chance Sunday to throw his second career no-hitter by an infield chopper that eluded Seattle Mariners teammate Robinson Cano in the fifth inning.

Cano gave it a go, hitting the dirt, but the ball was determined to snake past second base. If Cano is a step closer, Hernandez likely takes the mound in the top of the ninth inning bidding to become the 33rd pitcher — and the second in five days, following San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum — to throw multiple no-hitters.

A few minutes after manager Lloyd McClendon turned the game over to closer Fernando Rodney, who sealed the 3-0 victory against the Cleveland Indians with a stress-free ninth inning, Hernandez was asked if the possibility of a no-hitter crossed his mind Sunday.

“I think that every game,” he said with a smile.

Hernandez has become so adept at mixing three different pitches — a curve, a change-up and a fastball that makes it impossible for hitters to sit on the breaking stuff — that even on days he fails to make history, he does something that puts him in the company of shrine-worthy names.

When he found David Murphy looking at a don’t-even-think-about-hitting-this curve for strike three in the top of the seventh, Hernandez surpassed Bob Feller on the list of most strikeouts by a pitcher before the age of 29.

Hernandez’s nine strikeouts Sunday increased his career total to 1,840. The only pitchers to have fanned more hitters before turning 29 years old were Sam McDowell, Walter Johnson, Bert Blyleven, Amos Rusie and Don Drysdale.

McDowell is No. 1 on the list with 2,156, and he’s the only one in that group who isn’t in the Hall of Fame. (“Sudden” Sam had Hall of Fame talent compromised by a drinking problem he addressed in retirement. A longtime rehabilitation counselor, McDowell was the inspiration for the Sam Malone character on “Cheers.”)

It should be noted that Feller missed three full seasons and most of a fourth after enlisting in the Navy on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Because he struck out around 250 batters a season in those days, Feller was on pace to own almost 3,000 K’s before the age of 29.

In any case, Hernandez is associating with some vaunted company.

“I don't have the adjectives to explain him anymore,” McClendon said. “He’s just unbelievable.”

I asked the manager, whose big league career spanned from 1987 to 1994, if King Felix reminded him of any of the top pitchers of that era.

“You’re asking me to think now,” McClendon said before offering a thoughtful answer. “Felix is unique, probably a combination of Doc Gooden and Greg Maddux: The devastating change-up, the big hook, the fastball that’s 94-95 miles per hour.”

It’s an arsenal that turns every King Felix start into a potential no-hitter. Though his effort Sunday was a few inches short of unforgettable, Safeco Field fans realized they were watching somebody who is.

Hernandez is scheduled to make his next start this Sunday in Chicago against the White Sox. Thanks to an off-day after a three-game swing through Houston, he’ll be making that start after almost a week of rest.

Stay tuned.

When Felix Hernandez is dealing, history is just a step away.