Chip Scoggins: This King requires no crown to reign

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 28, 2012 - 12:22 AM

Felix Hernandez was completely at ease prior to taking the mound and shutting out the Twins.

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Seattle starter Felix Hernandez acknowledged center fielder Franklin Gutierrez after he caught a deep fly by the Twins' Trevor Plouffe in the third inning Monday night.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Felix Hernandez walked into the Seattle Mariners clubhouse wearing jeans, a dress shirt and big diamonds in each ear. He threw on his Miami Heat Dwyane Wade T-shirt, joked with a few teammates and playfully joined a group of reporters huddled around center fielder Franklin Gutierrez.

He waved his arms in the background until Gutierrez acknowledged him, which sent Hernandez away with a belly laugh.

Hernandez appeared as relaxed as any pitcher can look a few hours before his start, a maestro preparing for another performance, knowing he's so ridiculously good that there's no reason to feel uptight. It's good to be king.

"We all get pumped up when he's on the mound," catcher John Jaso said. "... It's a confidence booster when you know you've got a guy like that going out there."

King Felix showed why once again Monday night at Target Field. In his second start since recording the 23rd perfect game in major league history, Hernandez wasn't perfect or untouchable, but he refused to budge in holding the Twins to five hits in a 1-0 victory.

In an unexpected pitching duel, Liam Hendriks was good. King Felix was better.

"Just special stuff," Seattle manager Eric Wedge said.

Hernandez wriggled out of a few tight spots to become only the third pitcher since 1969 to win his fourth 1-0 game of the season, joining two Hall of Famers: Fergie Jenkins (1974) and Bert Blyleven (1976).

Hernandez left Justin Morneau stranded in the seventh after a leadoff triple, inducing grounders by Ryan Doumit, Trevor Plouffe and Jamey Carroll. In the ninth, he faced Joe Mauer, Josh Willingham and Morneau. He retired Mauer on a groundout and then forced Morneau into a double play after an infield single by Willingham.

"I'm a big competitive guy and I've just got to go out there and do my thing," Hernandez said. "That's the hard part of the lineup. I've got to make good pitches."

That's rarely a problem for Hernandez, who got all the run support he needed on a home run by Eric Thames in the eighth inning. Hernandez has given up only one earned run in his past 27 2/3 innings pitched and owns five shutouts this season.

"We get him a 1-0 lead," Mariners shortstop Brendan Ryan said, "and he smells blood."

Hernandez is stringing together an absurd run of pitching excellence. In his past 14 starts, he is 9-0 with a 1.40 ERA and 100 strikeouts. He has not lost since June 12.

"Truthfully, sometimes I think we take him for granted a little bit," said Seattle pitching coach Carl Willis, the former Twins reliever. "You expect every fifth day for him to go out and be dominating. And certainly he can do that. But you can't get caught sitting and watching."

No one has a better view than Jaso, who caught King Felix's perfect game against Tampa Bay on Aug. 15. Hernandez finished with 12 strikeouts in another 1-0 victory to deliver the first perfect game in Mariners history and a record third in the major leagues this year.

"I remember catching strike three in the ninth inning and thinking, 'Oh my gosh, did that just happen?' " Jaso said.

Hitters often are left with a similar feeling after seeing King Felix's repertoire of pitches, particularly his nasty changeup, his signature pitch.

"There are times when hitters know it's coming and still it's just so good and has so much action on it, you can't lay off it," Willis said. "He throws it with such conviction and arm speed that you can't pick it up."

That leads to awkward swings and baffled looks from frustrated hitters.

"The days that it is on, hitters are expecting it to come and they can't do anything about it," Jaso said. "They try and swing at pitches earlier in the count so they don't have to face that changeup. It can really mess with hitters heads."

Hernandez is a treat to watch in that regard. He's demonstrative on the mound but never looks rattled. He talks to himself and opposing batters. He pirouettes off the mound after timely strikeouts.

"He enjoys the competition and the challenges," Willis said. "Sometimes when he gives up a hit, he'll laugh or look at the guy. It's a still a fun game for him."

He has maintained that perspective despite playing on some crummy teams that have provided little run support. He just keeps firing away, giving his team the upper hand most nights.

"You're getting one of the best pitchers in the league, a really special pitcher going out there every fifth day," Seattle starter Jason Vargas said. "He's just a winner, that's it."

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com

  • SEATTLE 1, TWINS 0

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