Felix Hernandez, unquestionably one of the best pitchers in baseball, hurled the 23rd perfect game in major league history. Unfortunately, it was overshadowed by Melky Cabrera's 50 game suspension for a failed drug test.
I don't want to talk about one player's mistake; I want to celebrate another's excellence. This special achievement represented the first of his eight-year career, the first in Mariners history and the third already this season, setting a record for most perfect games in one year. Interestingly, two of the three perfect games this season--Philip Humber's in April was the other--have shared the exact same setting; a day game at Safeco Field. 22,000+ were on hand for that one, a game that lasted two hours and 17 minutes, while just under 22,000 fans showed up for this gem, which lasted all of five minutes longer. At least this time around the home team was on the winning side of the perfect game, albeit barely.
And unlike the Humber game, an unsuspecting masterpiece produced by a pedestrian pitcher, this particular perfecto (like Matt Cain's--fourteen strikeouts!) was akin to art in the highest form. Like watching Vincent van Gogh paint "The Starry Night." Hernandez, the 2010 AL Cy Young winner and a three time All-Star, submitted a truly dominant performance. He needed 113 pitches to set down all 27 Rays. His best stuff was on display as he punched out a dozen Tampa Bay Rays, whiffing every member of the starting nine except for leadoff hitter Sam Fuld. That makes five starts this season with double digit strikeout totals for #34. King Felix struck out the side in the sixth and eighth innings, including five of the final six batters he faced, seemingly gaining strength as he approached the finish line. He fanned Evan Longoria, Elliot Johnson and Sean Rodriguez two times each. By comparison, the entire Seattle lineup struck out twice.
As always, Hernandez had no margain for error. The light-hitting Mariners managed to score just once off 2011 AL Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson. Hellboy went toe-to-toe with Seattle's ace, firing seven innings of one-run ball while permitting just five hits and a walk. On most days, the 25 year-old cruises to an easy win with that pitching line. Instead, he's the tough-luck loser on the wrong end of a remarkable pitching duel. And for that, he has no one to blame but himself. His wild pitch in the third inning allowed Brendan Ryan to advance to third base, just in time for Jesus Montero to rip a two-out RBI single into left field. Because of that one mistake, his record falls to 7-8 and the Rays slip a half game behind Baltimore in the standings.
But it's not fair to knock Hellickson, who was outstanding in his own right. He lost because the Rays batted a collective 0-for-27. They'd like to forget this exercise in futility and move on, but the truth is that they have struggled to score runs on a consistent basis in 2012. In fact, Tampa Bay fields one of the worst offenses in the American League. They do rank first in walks and stolen bases, but in every other meaningful category they find themselves at or near the bottom of the totum pole. Various injuries to key players such as B.J. Upton, Desmond Jennings, Luke Scott, Matthew Joyce and Evan Longoria have depleted the lineup all season long. To make matters worse, the few who have managed to stay healthy--Carlos Pena, Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez--are underperforming. So even though the entire lineup has either slumped or gotten hurt, the resilient Rays continue to win because they are one of the best teams when it comes to preventing runs. The pitching staff features a strong rotation headed by Hellickson, David Price, James Shields, and Matt Moore, all of whom are backed by a bullpen that is nearly untouchable thanks to closer Fernando Rodney. Pair that depth with a top notch defense and it's not hard to see why Tampa Bay leads the Junior Circuit in ERA.
I'm not trying to take anything away from Hernandez, just trying to provide the proper context. Tampa had little more than a puncher's chance against the King this afternoon because the odds were stacked against them. What were they supposed to do on the road, in a tough park for hitters, with their pathetic offense pitted against a red-hot pitcher who hasn't dropped a decision in more than two months and posted a 1.73 ERA in the eleven starts preceding this one? As Will Ferrell retorts in The Other Guys, "You lose that battle nine times out of ten!" Complete and utter domination is nothing new to the 26 year-old, though. The historic effort marked Hernandez's fourth shutout of the season, all of which have come in the past six weeks. He now moves ahead of Toronto's Brandon Morrow (DL) for most in the majors. In the process he lowered his ERA to 2.60 and improved his record to 11-5 in the season. His 174 strikeouts tie Justin Verlander for second most in the AL behind Max Scherzer. Barring some sort of Tim Lincecum-esque slump, he's a surefire bet to receive serious Cy Young consideration.
His next start isn't exactly a challenge, either. He'll face the Indians on August 21st and with the way they've been struggling--just seven wins dating back to July 19th including an eleven game losing streak--his summerlong hot streak should continue. It is worth noting, however, that Cleveland tagged him for eight runs (six earned) and knocked him out of the game in the fourth inning in their last meeting, which came all the way back on May 16th.
No way that happens again.