The old man has done this for 10 years now, and he's something of an anomaly. Pitchers are not typically like a fine wine. They are more beer, at their freshest when they're young, skunkier the longer they stick around. A decade of 100-pitch nights ages an arm for the worse.
"I'm old, man," Felix Hernandez insisted, though he knows it's a sobriquet unlikely to stick at this point considering he's all of 28. He arrived with the Seattle Mariners at 19 years old, with triple-digit heat in his right arm and enough of a clue what to do with it that he never left. He grew up in the major leagues: got fat, matured, trimmed down, lost a few miles on the fastball, learned to pitch and put himself here, better than ever, 1a to Clayton Kershaw's 1 on the list of best pitchers in the world, with No. 3 a giant leap behind.
Before he arrived in the major leagues, writer Dave Cameron dubbed him "King Felix," a royal proclamation on a notoriously fickle creature: the pitching prospect. And yet here he is, the survivor, the one who didn't break down. He and Justin Verlander and Adam Wainwright and Matt Cain and Josh Johnson and Francisco Liriano and Brandon McCarthy and many, many more arrived that season. Only Felix and Verlander haven't hit the disabled list for an extended period because of arm problems. And Verlander is in the midst of the worst season of his career.
Hernandez, meanwhile, is apexing as he heads into his 7:10 p.m. start Friday at Fenway Park. His arm "feels really good – feels as good as it has in a long time." He's walking fewer hitters than ever. He's striking out more than ever. He's allowing fewer home runs than ever. He's inducing more ground balls than all but two pitchers.
"He's in a different league," Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said, enough so that amid Mike Trout's second-half drop-off he's garnering legitimate – and warranted – buzz as an American League MVP candidate. Much of that, certainly, comes from the Mariners' success and Hernandez's place as the face of the franchise, the hardest-luck pitcher around, the one who redefined the Cy Young Award by winning it with a 13-12 record. Hernandez owns the fine distinction of pitching eight games in which he went at least seven innings, gave up one or fewer runs, struck out at least 10 and didn't earn a victory. Only three pitchers have more such games: Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson and Jim Bunning, all of whom will be in the Hall of Fame this time next year.
Hernandez is perhaps two years away from gilding his path there. He's three-quarters of the way to his second Cy Young, sports a sub-2.00 ERA impressive even in an era where pitching rules and set a new standard this year with 16 straight starts of at least seven innings and two or fewer runs. He does it efficiently, too, topping out at 116 pitches this year, twice carving through eight innings in just 97 pitches, lasting at least five in all 26 of his starts.
"When I came to the big leagues," he said, "I was a young stud throwing hard, just fastball and curveball. Now that I've got more years in the league, I know how to pitch. I don't need to throw 100 anymore, 97, 96. I just need my corners."
His corners are his binky, especially on his arm side. Hernandez peppers the outside corner with his fastball against left-handers only to work back over the plate and bury the changeup that has become his trustiest pitch. Hernandez loves his change, which he picked up in 2009 fiddling around with grips. He made his index finger and thumb into a circle, squeezed his middle finger between the two seams and saw the ball come out of his hand and do unsavory things.
When Hernandez arrived, he threw his fastball two of every three pitches. Now it's more like two of every five, with the change occupying more than 30 percent of his offerings. It's no accident. Over the past 50 years, only nine pitchers have thrown more innings through their age-28 season than Hernandez's 2,010. Shorten that to 25 years and Hernandez will finish the season more than 150 innings ahead of the next pitcher on the list, CC Sabathia. The greatest talent any aging pitcher can have is the ability and willingness to evolve, and Hernandez recognizes with his fastball around 92 mph – up from last season but down about 4 mph from its peak – he needed to be a different pitcher.
"I'm always trying to do more than I can do," he said. "I'm not satisfied. I've got to go for me. That's me. And, like I said, there's still more years to do a lot of stuff. I just want to be healthy."
So he grabs horse pills by the handful – "Vitamins," he promises – and takes them one at a time. He does his shoulder program to counteract those 100-pitch nights. And he dreams of an October where Seattle's entire focus doesn't shift to football.
Hernandez went to the parade for the Seahawks earlier this year, saw the outpouring the Mariners have lacked since their SoDo Mojo days. Two winning seasons in nine years will erode a fan base like that. The Mariners lavished a seven-year, $175 million contract on Hernandez despite a troublesome-looking elbow in his MRI in part because he wore all those losses, swallowed the mediocrity, never asked out, never wanted out.
"I love this place," he said. "The organization is unbelievable. The city is the best. The fans are great. We just gotta play good, and the city will go crazy. I love it. This is the place."
Seattle sits a half-game behind Detroit for the final wild-card spot, amid a cluttered AL in which nine teams are vying for five spots. Never has Hernandez felt the intensity of a playoff game, stood on a mound and did what does best at the most vital time. His Mariners, the ones with a 2.93 ERA as a team, could finally get there this season. And the king, the old man, would be exactly where he belonged.
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