MINNEAPOLIS — Felix Hernandez’s Seattle Mariners teammates are running out of superlatives to call their ace.
King Felix will continue to do just fine.
Two starts after tossing a perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays, Hernandez picked up another complete game shutout Monday against Minnesota. He wasn’t quite perfect, but the 26-year-old right-hander was certainly impressive in a 1-0 win over the Twins in which Hernandez allowed just five hits. He struck out five in his fifth complete game of the season to outduel Minnesota starter Liam Hendriks, who also went the distance.
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Monday’s outing continued a special streak that Hernandez has put together since the middle of June. After giving up five runs in a 5-4 loss to San Diego on June 12, Hernandez has gone 9-0 with an ERA of 1.40 in 14 starts. During that stretch, he’s tallied 100 strikeouts and walked just 17. In 10 of those 14 starts, Hernandez has allowed one or zero runs.
Simply put, Hernandez is pitching in an entirely different stratosphere right now.
“It’s just special stuff,” said Mariners skipper Eric Wedge.
Perhaps the most impressive inning Monday for Hernandez was one in which he allowed a leadoff triple to Justin Morneau. The Twins first baseman sent a deep drive to right-center field that was hit off the wall and resulted in a leadoff triple in the seventh inning.
In many parks, Morneau’s blast would have been a home run. But with a high wall in right-center at Target Field, the ball stayed in play — much to the surprise of Hernandez.
“I thought it was out,” said Hernandez, who made his second career start at Target Field. “Did you see my reaction? I was like, ‘Oh, man.'”
What happened next was an example of why Hernandez is a candidate to win the second Cy Young of his eight-year career. With Morneau on third and nobody out, Hernandez never panicked. Like a true competitor, he went after each ensuing Twins batter.
Designated hitter Ryan Doumit grounded out to first baseman Justin Smoak for the first out, preventing Morneau from scoring. Three pitches later, Minnesota third baseman Trevor Plouffe hit a 1-1 pitch to second baseman Dustin Ackley. Again, Morneau stayed at third.
With two outs, Hernandez fully escaped the jam by getting Jamey Carroll to ground out on yet another first-pitch swing.
“It just seemed like they were just a little overanxious,” Mariners catcher John Jaso said of the Twins. “(Hernandez) didn’t change anything. He didn’t try to throw anything more nasty or anything like that. It was the same stuff.”
King Felix has been throwing that same stuff for most of the season. But over the past two-and-a-half months, it’s been even more effective. Over his past 12 starts, Hernandez has pitched five shutouts — four, including Monday’s, were 1-0 victories. In doing so, Hernandez became just the third pitcher since 1969 to win four 1-0 ball games. Fergie Jenkins did so in 1974, while Bert Blyleven also accomplished the feat in 1976.
Seattle isn’t scoring many runs this season — just 506 prior to Monday, which was the fewest in the American League. But whenever Hernandez takes the mound, he doesn’t need much from the Mariners offense.
“It seems like all he needs is one run,” Jaso said. “It’s definitely nice to get more.”
The numbers for Hernandez are certainly impressive. He’s allowed just one earned run in his last 27-2/3 innings. He lowered his Major League-best ERA to 2.43 with Monday’s shutout. His five shutouts are also the most in baseball.
But his demeanor on the mound every time he pitches is equally admirable. Clinging to a 1-0 lead Monday, Hernandez was set to face the heart of Minnesota’s order in Joe Mauer, Josh Willingham and Justin Morneau. Unfazed, Hernandez mowed through the ninth inning, getting Morneau to ground into a game-ending double play.
“I’m a competitive guy. I’ve just got to go out there and do my thing,” Hernandez said. “I’ve got to throw strikes. It’s a hard part of the lineup, so I’ve got to make good pitches.”
Hernandez made good pitches from pitch No. 1 to pitch No. 100, on a night in which he had to in order to keep his team in the game. Hendriks’ lone mistake was a solo homer by Eric Thames in the eighth inning that proved to be the difference. Even during the best game of his young career, Hendriks was outdone by another gem from Hernandez.
Once again, King Felix reigned for Seattle.
“He’s a competitor every time he goes out there,” Jaso said. “It’s nice to have him. Every team wants five of him.”