SEATTLE – Seattle starter Felix Hernandez, regarded by some as the perfect pitcher of his generation, put that perfection into practice Wednesday.
Matched up against the Tampa Bay Rays, he threw the third perfect game of the 2012 MLB season, setting down all 27 batters he faced, striking out 12 of them in a 1-0 victory.
There weren’t any screaming outs on which the Mariner defense had to make outstanding plays. It was, if there could ever be such a thing, as routine a perfect game as one could imagine.
Seattle scored one run in the third inning on an RBI single by DH Jesus Montero off the Rays’ Jeremy Hellickson, and that was it.
"I felt it in the bullpen," Hernandez said. "It felt special from the beginning."
Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon got thrown out of the game in the seventh inning while arguing a called strike against right fielder Matt Joyce.
"I thought the left-handed hitters (saw) a big strike zone," Maddon said. "I was not complaining about the right-handed hitters. When (the umpire) starts expanding huge to one side or the other, then you cause them to swing at pitches that they don’t normally swing at."
But Maddon got little sympathy from home plate umpire Rob Drake, who liked what he saw from Hernandez all afternoon.
"I yelled at Joe to get his (butt) out of there," Seattle manager Eric Wedge said. "Sure he was (trying to disrupt Felix)."
It didn’t work. From the time Maddon was ejected, five of the final seven outs of the game were strikeouts as Hernandez improved his record to 11-5; over the last 11 games he is 7-0 with a 1.56 ERA, during which time hitters are averaging just .156 against him.
"I had the easy job," said catcher John Jaso, who played for the Rays last year. "I just sat back there and caught it. Everything Felix threw today worked. Everything."
The Rays were in no position to disagree.
"Felix and (Justin) Verlander are the two most dominant pitchers in the league," Tampa Bay leadoff hitter Sam Fuld said. "Just like Verlander, Felix just got stronger as the game went longer. You never want to resign yourself to that, but he was as dominant in the ninth inning as he was in the first."
It was the second perfect game of the season thrown at Safeco Field and the third no-hitter. Philip Humber of the White Sox threw a perfect game at the Mariners on April 21, and six Seattle pitchers – starter Kevin Millwood and relievers Charlie Furbush, Stephen Pryor, Lucas Luetge, Brandon League and Tom Wilhelmsen – combined for a no-hitter on June 8.
Hernandez threw his arms to the sky after Sean Rodriguez took a called third strike to end the game and the Mariners’ ace was swarmed near the pitchers’ mound by his teammates after the first perfect game in franchise Mariner history.
When he finally walked out of the scrum and off the field, he was given a standing ovation by the 21,889 on hand.
"It was unbelievable," Hernandez said. "When I go out there (a no-hitter) is always in my mind. But I don’t really have words to explain how it feels. I felt real good in the bullpen, then about the third inning I started feeling like something special was happening."
Hernandez only struck out two men in the first three innings, but he struck out two in the fourth, then struck out the side in the sixth and the eighth before fanning two in the ninth.
Through it all, the Rays’ hitters were looking silly trying to chase pitches that were moving all over the place. Hernandez was hitting 95 mph routinely, even in the ninth inning, but his knee-buckling curve was in top form, as was his changeup.
"His stuff was prodigious," Maddon said of Hernandez. "When he gets it going, he got the vibe going, and he got us just chasing. We help him a lot out of the zone, but that also speaks to the movement on his pitches."
Hernandez is the face of the franchise in Seattle, and while he has a contract through the 2014 season, scarcely a week goes by where someone in the national media isn’t suggesting that the Mariners trade him for more pieces to get the franchise back over .500.
Hernandez loves Seattle, however, and doesn’t want to leave.
"He’s one of the most humble stars in the game," Seattle shortstop Brendan Ryan said. "He has all that talent, but he’s a blue collar guy. It’s easy for fans to relate to him. He’s easy to pull for, for sure."
While there were no make-or-break defensive plays in the game, Ryan had what was the closest to a web gem for the second out of the seventh inning. B.J. Upton hit a soft grounder to the left side. Third baseman Kyle Seager made a dive for the ball, but he couldn’t come up with it.
"I was afraid that Seager would catch it," Wedge said, "and then he’d have to jump up and make the throw."
It would have been a tough play. But when the ball got past Seager, it went directly to the strong-armed Ryan, who made what turned out to be an ordinary out.
"Once it got past Kyle, it was pretty routine," Ryan said. "The defense was good behind Felix, but he didn’t need much."
This was the first perfect game thrown in the month of August in Major League history.
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