Saturday, April 14, 2007

Long Live the King

A few years ago, I was reading an article about the top prospects in the Seattle Mariners farm system, and read about a 17-year-old pitching prodigy named Felix Hernandez, or "King Felix." I told myself not to get too excited about him, until about a year later, when as an 18-year-old he was tearing up the minor leagues. By the time he was 19, the Mariners were having an awful season, and talk began of calling Felix up for the end of the season. In his third career start, still as a teenager, Felix went 8 innings, struck out 11 Kansas City batters, and gave up one run. He had arrived.

This season, Felix became the youngest opening day starter since Dwight Gooden. Learning from the mistakes of Gooden and the Mets, the Mariners have been careful with Felix the last two seasons, keeping him on innings pitched counts and monitoring his arm, being extremely cautious and not wanting to wear his young arm down. They'll have to keep him away from the coke as well. That shouldn't be too hard, as Felix has recently shown increased dedication.

If there was one major knock on the 21-year-old it was his weight. Felix looked more like CC Sabathia than Pedro Martinez. The Mariners were concerned, but not overly so. Then Felix showed up in spring with the rest of the pitchers and catchers having dropped 20 lbs and put on some serious muscle.

Felix has been absolutely dominant in his two starts this season. He mowed down Oakland on opening night, striking out 12 and giving up 3 hits and 2 walks over 8 innings. Then, in one of the most anticipated pitching match ups I can remember, Felix stole the spotlight from Daisuke Matsuzaka in his first game at Fenway Park, throwing a complete-game one-hitter, with a dazzling array of fastballs and breaking pitches. I was at a Red Sox bar watching the game (only way I knew I would get audio on the game) and talking to a couple Sox fans as Felix was throwing 85-mph curve balls and 91-mph sliders. "How is that possible? How can someone throw a pitch with that much movement that fast?"

In 17 innings so far this season, Felix has only given up 4 hits in 53 at-bats. That comes out to opponents hitting .075 against him. These numbers put him in pretty good company... the last time someone had thrown that many innings while holding opponents to a batting average that low in the first two starts of a season was 1970, when it was done by two players: former Associated Press Pitcher of the Year Tom Phoebus of Baltimore, and one of the best pitchers of all-time, Nolan Ryan. Like I said, pretty good company.

I've been onto Felix for a few years now. After Wednesday's performance on National Television, the rest of the country has started to take note. Felix Hernandez has arrived. Long Live the King!

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