On a sun-soaked Wednesday afternoon at then-Safeco Field, Hernandez stepped to the mound to make his 25th start in another season where the Mariners’ playoff hopes had ended before the All-Star break. He felt good, not great, in the bullpen. Twenty-seven outs later, he would feel perfect. Hernandez recorded the 23rd perfect game in MLB history and the first in Mariners history in a 1-0 victory.
Besides not allowing a base runner, he struck out 13 batters. Of his 113 pitches, 77 were strikes including 24 swings and misses. It almost ended before it started when Sam Fuld, the first hitter of the game, hit a lower liner to right field that was caught by Eric Thames on a tough catch. Hernandez struck out eight of the last 12 batters, including Sean Rodriguez looking for the final out despite falling behind 2-0.
“My mind was just throw it over the plate,” Hernandez said. “He’s going to swing. He took it, and it was a strike. It’s crazy.”
Hernandez helped changed the perception of pitcher success — particularly the value of wins and losses — when he was named the 2010 American League Cy Young Award winner in a decisive selection process that saw him earn 21 first-place votes with David Price getting four. His 13-12 record didn’t prove to be a deterrent as it might have been even five years earlier. He became the first pitcher to win the Cy Young with fewer than 15 wins. Beyond the record, which was largely affected by one of the many mediocre-to-terrible teams Hernandez played on for the bulk of his career, he led the American League in earned-run average (2.27), innings pitched (249 1/3) and quality starts (30). His 232 strikeouts and six complete games were the second highest in the AL. He joined Randy Johnson as the only other Mariners player to win the award.
“I don’t have any words to explain how I feel,” he said. “I mean, you cannot explain it. The first time I heard I won the Cy Young, my mind was, ‘Really? Really?’ And I just asked one more time ‘I won the Cy Young?’ And they said, ‘Yes, you won the Cy Young.’ ”
Extension and emotion
The news broke the day before, but the official announcement came on Feb. 12, 2013 at Safeco Field. Hernandez would remain a Mariner for the next seven years with a $175 million contract extension, making him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball at the time. The scene at Safeco was emotional. When Hernandez and his wife, Sandra, stepped out of the elevator at the basement level for the news conference, he was met by cheers. Nearly every Mariners employee in the building was clad in King’s Court T-shirts cheering and chanting his name. Tears streamed down his cheeks. There would be more tears in a heartfelt news conference where he pledged his loyalty to the only organization he’d ever known.
“I’m doing this because I love Seattle,” Hernandez said. “This has been my life. This has been my family.”
What could've been
On the final day of the 2014 season, Hernandez walked to the mound at Safeco knowing that his team couldn’t lose. The Mariners had a slim chance to force a play-in game for the second wild-card spot if the Oakland A’s lost and the Mariners beat the Angels. Hernandez dominated until elimination. He pitched five shutout innings, allowing one hit with seven strikeouts. He took the mound for the sixth inning, knowing it would be another postseason spent at home. He pitched to one batter before being removed and receiving a standing ovation.
“You saw my face when I was pitching today,” Hernandez said. “This was it. This was my game.”
Remember the King
The buildup to the Mariners’ game versus the Red Sox on April 11, 2007, wasn’t about Hernandez but the pitcher who would start for Boston that night in his Fenway Park debut. Daisuke Matsuzaka was the latest and most-hyped Japanese pitcher to come to MLB. Boston won a bidding war for his services, paying $51.11 million for the rights to the 26-year-old right-hander and it signed him to a six-year, $52 million contract. He would face Ichiro in the first at-bat. But Hernandez, three days after his 21st birthday, became the story in the end. He tossed a one-hit shutout, allowing just one hit with two walks and six strikeouts. That one hit came in the eighth inning on a single by J.D. Drew.
“He had everything going on tonight,” Red Sox DH David Ortiz said. “He was just impossible.”
Hernandez became the first American League pitcher to hit a grand slam in 37 years when he smacked a first-pitch fastball off Johan Santana over the wall in right field. The last AL pitcher to hit a grand slam was Cleveland’s Steve Dunning off the A’s Diego Segui on May 11, 1971, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. To Hernandez, this would definitely be a Top 5 moment. He will often remind people about it. “My approach? Just swing,” Hernandez said.