Since Kevin Youkilis sent us home with a swinging strikeout last night, I've been trying to come up with that one word that most accurately describes what I saw. This is the best I can do, and yet it still doesn't do Felix's game any justice. Think of the most glowing adjective you can, multiply it by a billion, and you might approximate the Fenway experience for a Mariners fan yesterday. Maybe. The written word is a wonderful tool, but for moments like this, it's woefully inadequate.
Biggest Contribution: King Felix, +54.2%
Biggest Suckfest: Ichiro, -9.7%
Most Important At Bat: Beltre double, +12.3%
Most Important Pitch: Ortiz DP, +9.4%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +54.2%
Total Contribution by Position Players: -5.0%
In the past, when good things happened to the Mariners, they've generally come as surprises. The '95 comeback, The Double, the 2001 regular season, Randy's no-hitter, Cameron's four-homer game - they were the sorts of things that'd leave you thinking "I can't believe that happened!" as you walked back to your car or went to work or whatever. That's kind of been our identity. When we tried to get excited about things ahead of time, we've almost invariably gotten burned. Think 2001 ALCS. Think the other ALCS's. Think the "next wave" of untouchable pitching prospects. When Mariner fans actually got their hopes up about something, it pretty much always found a way to let them down.
Which brought us to yesterday, probably the most highly anticipated pitching matchup in franchise history. With our crown jewel on the hill against Daisuke Matsuzaka on ESPN in front of the second-largest Fenway crowd since World War II, every Mariner fan in the world recognized this as an opportunity for Felix to finally make a name for himself on a national stage. An opportunity to get himself noticed as the best young talent the AL has to offer. Hell, an opportunity to make the Mariners relevant again after years of major Royalitude. As much as can possibly hang in the balance for an early-April game against a non-rival was hanging in the balance, and everyone knew it. This was our chance. And with Felix on the mound, we were quick to forget about history and look ahead with eager eyes. Some might call it lousy pattern recognition, but no, we said. This is Felix. This is different.
As I was waiting outside the ballpark for Phil to show up, I was floored by just how much excitement there was over Matsuzaka's home debut. Aside from three people I saw in Mariner appeal and one creeper in a Padres jersey, everyone was there for Daisuke. His name was on every tongue among the gathering crowd on Lansdowne Street, and there were tens of thousands of freebie "Dice-K" placards floating around, rolled up in hands or scattered across the sidewalk. I knew he'd be popular, but I didn't realize he's be such an instant sensation, treated as the savior of a franchise that doesn't need one. Standing alone in my Ichiro jersey, I wasn't being heckled or laughed at by the passing hordes - I was being ignored. This was Matsuzaka's day, and no one in Boston seemed prepared for it to be anything else. All I could do was stand there quietly and hope that Felix felt like stealing the spotlight.
Eventually we met up and filed our way into the ballpark in time for the first pitch. Of course, it was way too close; for some reason the geniuses who run Fenway security decided to have everyone pass through a single gate roughly three feet across before getting to the turnstiles. If you've never been to Fenway, there are thousands of people crowding the streets before any game, so as you can imagine this was a slow-moving process where, at one point, I moved all of four half-steps in five minutes. Constantly checking the time on my phone, I was afraid we'd already missed the first Ichiro at bat when it read 7:10, but fortunately the game was late to begin, and Matsuzaka didn't throw a pitch until we'd gotten in and raced halfway around the stadium to our seats. That made one lucky break on a night where I was hoping for several.
And, well, you know how it started. Matsuzaka got his first pitch over to roaring applause, and ended a long at bat by getting Ichiro to tap one back to the mound, an oft-underrated but powerful display of submission. When Beltre followed with a groundout I had to remind myself that "oh yeah our lineup has sucked" so I didn't get too caught up in all the Daisukemania, but before I could finish that thought I saw Jose Vidro panting and bending over at first after a grounder found left field. The first blemish. This mission wasn't going to be easy, but it wasn't impossible, either.
The top of the inning ended soon after, but while the fans around us relaxed in their horribly uncomfortable seats, I leaned forward in anticipation of the show I came to see. Forget Matsuzaka; I was here for Felix (God bless you, awful Cleveland weather). And, oddly enough, I wasn't nervous at all. Fenway's a terrifying environment for a road team, but somehow Felix was able to make me comfortable before he'd even thrown a pitch. I thought about this while Felix strolled out of the dugout and walked back a few eye-blinks later, having induced two grounders and a weak pop-out. Velocity? Good. Location? Good. Results? Good. The scoreboard said "Hernandez," but after the first I knew The King was pitching.
And then the damndest thing happened - the Mariners jumped on Matsuzaka and hit the ball hard. Jose Guillen nearly put a hole in the Monster with a line drive single, and Kenji Johjima followed with a double into the left field corner. With all the talk about Ichiro, I couldn't help but wonder why no one was paying attention to Matsuzaka vs. Johjima, an almost equally-intriguing showdown. Score one for Kenji. Betancourt came up next and hit a soft liner to Manny, but while his throw home was on the mark, the withered remains of Jason Varitek's career dropped the ball and let Guillen score on the sac fly. Up 1-0, the part of my brain that doesn't believe in karma or a sinister God thought "okay, this one's over." With Felix, that one run felt like a dozen.
Sitting along the first-base side where you don't have a real good idea of pitch location, you can judge how a guy's throwing by two things: success of the batters, and body language. The batters weren't doing anything but rolling grounders and staring wide-eyed at breaking balls that fell five feet (see the curveball that froze JD Drew in the second). And the way Felix handled himself on the mound was equally encouraging, as he just got the ball and threw the ball with a terrific tempo, and had this sort of walk about him like he was jeering the Red Sox without changing his face. You hear announcers talk about swagger all the time, but while it seems silly, with Felix you can actually see it. Next time he's pitching, watch him walk back to the rubber after Johjima returns the ball. He struts. If you didn't know any better, you'd think he has somewhere better to be. Not in a "he doesn't look like he cares" sort of way, but more like "he thinks this is too easy." As a batter, that's got to be frustrating, but the more you try to fight it, the sooner you're walking back to the dugout wondering what kind of human throws a 98mph sinker.
Felix was on. That much was obvious. Because of this I was paying little (if any) attention to Matsuzaka, but you don't need a focused eye to see that his pitches have a metric assload of movement. That he wasn't recording more strikeouts came as a surprise, but then I suppose the front office has put together a contact-heavy lineup, so it sort of made sense. He and Felix traded blanks for a few innings, the only mistakes being a blatantly deliberate beaning of Jose Guillen and walks to Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis. Why Guillen gets booed by Red Sox fans, I have no idea, but it seemed to fire him up. I admire his restraint after getting hit, jogging to first without even glancing towards the mound - the guy's batshit crazy, but he picks his moments. As for the Felix walks, he was overthrowing a few fastballs then ended up way too high, but neither did him any harm, thanks in part to a routine David Ortiz double play. The shift worked to perfection on him last night. We went to the fifth 1-0, and the game was flying by.
That's when the bats came out. Seattle's, anyway. Out of nowhere the hitters were all over Matsuzaka (Ichiro excluded), with Betancourt, Lopez, and Vidro smacking line drives and Beltre hitting a double that would've left any other ballpark. Ibanez tagged him too, although not hard enough. Suddenly it was a three-run game, and where minutes earlier the Red Sox were only one swing away from a tie, now they faced the harsh reality that, in order to get back into this game, they'd have to mount a rally against this inhuman mutant who just walks to and from the mound with nary a word, quietly and effectively doing his job with seeming disinterest. He's like Il Duce from The Boondock Saints, only with three times the firepower and half the remorse.
The bottom of the fifth is when I first noticed that something special was going on. Jose Lopez made a pair of phenomenal defensive plays in a row, getting Drew and Lowell on grounders that Derek Jeter would've watched roll by with a look of consternation from twenty feet away. Varitek hit a tapper back to the mound to end the frame, and when I glanced at the scoreboard I saw the big zero under "H" and felt the gears of anxiety start to whir in the back of my skull. There's no way I was going to luck my way into a free ticket and see that, was there?
The sixth came and went - Guillen and Johjima beat the snot out of another two Matsuzaka deliveries while the three Boston hitters crapped themselves - and I started to get jinxing text messages from a Red Sox fan friend of mine. I didn't have time to be nervous about the potential history, though, because Jose Vidro's laughably predictable double play to end the seventh brought the stadium to life, and I was worried that the lead was in danger. Forget the 0 H; I was concerned about the 0 R. Felix is a young kid, and despite the dull game, the Sox fans were still creating an impressively intimidating environment. I didn't want him to crack, but I saw the potential, and it gave me the shivers.
Looking back, it was silly of me to be nervous. While Felix was starting to tire, as evidenced by Youkilis and Ortiz getting some air under the ball, his composure didn't change at all. There were no visible signs of apprehension or timidness or concern - Felix just threw the ball and got it back and threw it again without paying any attention to the 36,000+ people screaming for him to fail. He froze Ramirez with a moving fastball to end the inning and walked off the field with a subtle fist pump and the same strut he had all game. He's 21 years old.
At this point both Phil and I were practically shaking from nerves. Terry Francona called to the bullpen and brought in Joel Pineiro on purpose, but I couldn't even think about the Mariners hitting, not with what was coming up in the bottom half. If five innings makes you notice a no-hitter and six makes you joke about it, seven makes you think it's actually possible. Already having gotten through Ortiz and Ramirez, the job was about to get easier for Felix. All he had to do stave off fatigue and rely on adrenaline to carry him through the next six batters, and he'd make himself an instant legend in what was supposed to be another guy's party.
I looked over at Phil and mentioned that, as a talented lefty, Drew scared me the most of the remaining batters, but before we could finish our discussion of whether or not Felix has any real platoon splits, a groundball just barely eluded Lopez's outstretched glove at second, and the Sox had their first hit of the game. The crowd leaped to its feet, but I was giving a standing ovation for an entirely different reason. While a no-hitter would've been jaw-droppingly orgasmic, I couldn't be too disappointed with the circumstances. Already Felix had made this a memorable night. Now he just needed to shake it off and finish the job.
And that's exactly what he did. One initially frightening fly out later, back came the groundballs, and even after Sexson dropped what would've been an inning-ending double play, Felix got Crisp to roll a routine grounder to short. That inning is what officially put me over the edge and convinced me that Felix had made The Leap. While it was the only inning where he'd given up a hit, it was also the inning where he had the most to overcome. A baserunner, the frustration of losing a no-hitter, a stadium that, to its credit, kept cheering even when it was clear their team was being dominated - I would've understood if Felix came a little unglued and maybe walked the next guy he faced, getting into some trouble and forcing Putz to slam the door. But it didn't happen. Felix paid no heed to the environment and kept right on dealing. You know how they say some guys can't handle the pressure of playing in a town like Boston or New York? Felix can. And he's going to keep doing it in a Mariner uniform for the next several years.
When it came time for the ninth, it felt like the Red Sox were out of steam, like the eighth was their last gasp. Felix recorded two quick rollers and brought me to my feet for one final showdown, and when Youkilis took an aesthetically-displeasing cut on an incredible curveball for the third strike, I shouted louder than I can ever remember shouting. All the build-up, all the anticipation and excitement - it was all completely and utterly justified. For one day, a Mariner game lived up to every last bit of its potential. It's been almost twelve years since the last time we could say that. In nine innings, the opposition was out-hit by Jose Vidro, and it was all Felix's doings. Savor this game. This really and truly was one for the ages.
If the country didn't know who Felix Hernandez was before yesterday, they do now. Of that there's no question. Yahoo!, MSNBC, ESPN, the Boston Globe - all anyone can talk about today is how Matsuzaka's home debut was upstaged by a dominant performance by this kid from Seattle who has "unbelievable stuff" and hard sinkers "that looked like they were moving six feet." Thanks to all the attention paid to this game, Felix practically became a household name in less than three hours.
If I had a chance to address the entire country after last night's game, I think I'd sit there thinking for a minute, then look up at the camera and say but one sentence:
Felix is ours, and you can't have him.