Felix Hernandez: Man Who Gets It
On April 19, 2012, the Mariners played a game against the Indians I wish I didn’t remember, and that I hope I never forget. The Mariners were, I don’t know, whatever record they were, and it was too early to think they’d be any good and it was too early to think they would suck. It was, in other words, a typical Mariners April, and in this game they turned to Felix Hernandez on the mound. In classic Mariners form, Felix’s teammates didn’t provide him with much in the way of support, but they did give him a run. In classic Felix form, the King let it hold up. Over eight shutout innings, Felix whiffed a dozen batters, and pitching with one out and the bases loaded in the top of the eighth, Felix escaped by striking out consecutive Indians on eight pitches. First, he made Jason Kipnis go away. Then he made Shin-Soo Choo go away, just like Bill Bavasi did. Felix was approaching 130 pitches, so in the ninth he’d turn the ball over to the bullpen, but he left the mound in the eighth with a roar. Choo’s swing and miss wrapped up one of the most utterly dominant outings of Felix’s big-league career. It was, somehow, an outing that stood out from most of the others.
Then in the top of the ninth, that stupid son of a bitch Brandon League coughed it up. Two walks and a single loaded the bases, and another single un-loaded them, and the Mariners lost 2-1. In the bigger picture, League’s meltdown was independent of Felix’s dominance, but that night, because of League, we couldn’t feel the same about Felix. We didn’t get that last taste of sweet closure, and to this day I can’t think of the first eight innings without thinking of the ninth. On too many occasions, Felix has been let down by his offense. On too many other occasions, Felix has been let down by his bullpen. Too much of Felix’s ability has been wasted, and Felix is a guy who really likes to win. Everybody likes to win, but Felix can usually do more on his own to that end.
Now keep all of that in mind as you read this. You might’ve missed it, but yesterday, Felix was amazing! Against a lineup that isn’t good, but against a lineup that’d scored 20 runs in two games. The Mariners’ offense, meanwhile, was not amazing, but it did provide Felix with two runs to protect, which he did. The top of the eighth ended with Felix striking out Martin Maldonado, and the score then was 2-0 Mariners with Felix at 108 pitches. His last pitch had been a fastball at 94.
For Robby Thompson, there’d be options. He could stick with Felix, or he could give the ball to new closer Danny Farquhar. As all managers would, Thompson asked Felix how he felt. Ryan Divish notes the response.
[Felix] admitted to Thompson in between innings that he was done for day.
“He was pretty much at the end of his rope,” Thompson said. “He’d basically had enough. He was honest with me.”
Normally Hernandez puts up a contentious fight about coming out of games. This time he didn’t. Of course, he could have and would have pitched if they needed him to.
“I was a little tired,” Hernandez said. “They asked me if I wanted to go back in. I said I’m alright, but I’ve had enough. I was just being honest. I want to go out there, but if I’m tired, I don’t want to blow the game.”
For Felix, this would’ve been a perfectly understandable thought process:
- I’m tired
- but if I come out someone else comes in
- the score is close because this offense is the Mariners’ offense
- whoever comes in could blow it
- lots of leads have been blown and the closer has an ERA near 5
- if they blow it I don’t win and the team doesn’t win
- I should probably do this by myself
- “I’m good to go”
But this seems to have been the actual thought process:
- I’m tired
- fatigue leads to reduced effectiveness
- probably better, then, to use a fresh reliever
- another guy could provide a better chance to win than I could
- “I’m tired”
A little while ago, I wrote about a Kyle Seager bunt against the shift, and I noted how weird it is that we think of obvious baseball as smart baseball. Felix, on Sunday, made what’s probably a pretty obvious decision, and I’m praising him for being smart. But there’s smart smart and baseball smart, and baseball is a game of egos and over-confidence. Smartness is relative, and many pitchers probably would’ve preferred to stay in the game. Rarely do you observe this blend of competitiveness and honesty, and Felix should be celebrated for being different from the others. He should be celebrated for being different from how he used to be. Based on his own testosterone and memory, Felix had every reason to deny his own fatigue, but in that moment he understood what would be best for all parties involved. He understood his own level, he understood the level of the fresh bullpen, and he forgave prior letdowns. In that moment, there was no hubris, there were no grudges.
Say what you will about Erik Bedard, but at least he doesn’t try to over-push it. Bedard knows that pitching tired means under-performance and increased injury risk. Felix gets that. Felix didn’t used to get that, but Felix gets that now, and it’s maybe more important than ever with Felix occupying a leadership role in the clubhouse. Younger pitchers are going to be learning from the Felix example, and the reason things are the way they are is because that’s how it’s always been. Pitchers have forever been too stubborn, and following the Felix example, Mariners pitchers might not be afraid to be honest. Felix isn’t, despite all the times he’s been burned.
Felix has the talent. Felix has the loyalty. Felix has the emotional maturity and brains. Felix has it all. Felix Hernandez has everything, and we have Felix Hernandez.