ST. PETERSBURG – Exactly one year after throwing his first perfect game, Felix Hernandez is asked what has changed for him since that historic day at Safeco Field.
“I don’t know. You tell me?” Hernandez says with a grin. “I don’t know. I’m the same guy.”
The Mariners ace indeed seems to have remained the same hard-working, fun-loving character in the wake of that 1-0 perfecto on Aug. 15, 2012 against the Rays. But things have changed around him.
Of the nine position players who started alongside Hernandez that day, only four will be in the lineup against the same Rays squad on Thursday evening at Tropicana Field as Seattle closes out a three-game set.
First baseman Justin Smoak and third baseman Kyle Seager are still in their same positions, while center fielder Michael Saunders is now playing left while Dustin Ackley was penciled into center Thursday after playing second base a year ago in the perfect game.
The rest of the Mariners from that day? Shortstop Brendan Ryan is still on the team, but didn’t start Thursday. Designated hitter Jesus Montero is still in the organization, but not with the Major league club. Gone completely are catcher John Jaso, left fielder Trayvon Robinson and right fielder Eric Thames.
Hernandez’s own memory remains perfectly intact, of course.
“I don’t know if anything was different than usual, but I felt pretty good,” he said. “It was just one of those days, you know? Everybody was in the right position. It was the right day, I made the right pitches. That was a perfect day.”
As the zeroes mounted on the sunny afternoon at Safeco, Hernandez allowed himself to begin thinking about something special happening midway through the game.
“Like in the fourth and fifth inning, I was just thinking about, ‘I have a no-hitter going, you know?’” he said. “But there’s a lot of game left and you’ve got to make good pitches. My stuff was working. I had the breaking ball working and my changeup was good. It was one of those days.”
Manager Eric Wedge isn’t with the team now either, continuing to recover at home from a minor stroke that has sidelined him since June 22. Acting manager Robby Thompson was the bench coach that day, however, and he looks back fondly on the event as well.
“How can you not?” Thompson said. “Watching that game and having that knot in your gut, waiting for that last out. Any time Felix takes the mound, he’s got a chance to do that. There are several guys throughout the league that legitimately have that chance to throw a no-hitter or perfect game. So nothing surprises me, but perfect games and few and far between. That was a day we’ll all remember.”
Of all the developments with the Mariners this season, the biggest surprise might be the emergence of Danny Farquhar as the team’s closer.
Since Tom Wilhelmsen was demoted two weeks ago, the 5-foot-9 Farquhar has stepped into the void in near-perfect fashion and acting manager Robby Thompson finally is conceding the job belongs for now to the 26-year-old Florida native.
Though Thompson originally said the Mariners would fill the ninth-inning role with several candidates on a matchup basis, Farquhar has gotten the ball in all five save situations since Wilhelmsen’s departure, with outstanding results. Farquhar has notched the five saves while allowing just two hits with no walks and eight strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings.
Though his ERA stands at 4.70 in 27 appearances this rookie season, in 10 outings since July 21 Farquhar has surrendered just four hits in 14 2/3 scoreless innings with four walks and 22 strikeouts. He ranks third among American League relievers with 13.62 strikeouts per nine innings pitched (58 strikeouts in 38 1/3 innings).
Farquhar, acquired in the Ichiro Suzuki trade from the Yankees last year, said the turning point came July 28 in Minnesota when he struck out five in two perfect innings of relief as he began pitching more inside and feeling comfortable setting up hitters with his fastball, cutter, curve combinations.
“I would say my confidence really started getting going after the Twins game,” he said. “Way back I was throwing the ball really well there and I’m just building on that. I think that’s how I got myself in the closer’s role, just by throwing the ball well and having the confidence. I’m just rolling with that.”
Farquhar showed his arsenal to the Rays while slamming the door on Tuesday’s 5-4 win with a perfect ninth. He struck out Ben Zobrist looking with a 95-mph heater, then froze Matt Joyce on a 76-mph curve before getting Evan Longoria to fly out.
“Being able to throw three pitches in there for strikes, they’re good little weapons to have,” he said. “I enjoy it and it definitely keeps hitters off balance, having three instead of two.”
The off-speed pitch to Joyce was a thing of beauty, leaving the Rays outfielder watching helplessly after setting himself for a full-count fastball.
“I shook two or three times to it,” Farquhar said. “It was the one that felt good in my hand. He was sitting on something hard and I knew I just needed to flip something in there right down the middle and he’d just take it at that point.”
Farquhar has been a closer in the Minors, but never had a save opportunity in the Majors until Aug. 3 against the Orioles. He hasn’t flinched since.
“Closing in the Minor Leagues is not the same as up here,” Thompson said. “It’s very difficult to get those final three outs. It takes a special guy on the mound, with a different mentality. So far, he’s proven that he’s capable of being out there as closer. He’s kind of got what it takes. We’ll see if he runs with it and what he can do with it. But so far, so good.”
I love this picture I caught of Griffey as he strolled in from center field, past the No. 24 painted into the grass, as the crowd roared. Junior then spoke from the heart for more than 23 minutes — and, yeah, let’s just round it up to 24 to fit the night. He was allotted for a 10-minute window in the pregame ceremony, so it’s fair to say Junior let it run a little.
Most of his speech was focused on thanking people and regaling his friends and former teammates, particularly Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez, Dan Wilson, Randy Johnson and Alvin Davis, the five players who preceded him into the Mariners Hall.
He also had kind words for Dave Niehaus, who was represented by his wife, Marilyn Niehaus.
You can read my full story on the night’s events here.
I also wrote about Griffey’s luncheon and talk with the media on Friday, which included an explanation of why he wore his cap backward that I’d never heard before. That’s all here.
And we’ll have video from the ceremony up on Mariners.com shortly as well.
Good stuff all around. I was fortunate to have had the chance to watch and cover Griffey when he was coming up in Seattle, but it still amazes me to watch his highlight video and be reminded again just how much he packed into his career here.
The man was a special player. The best I’ve ever seen. And to watch him on a daily basis was a treat that Mariners fans should never forget.
Outfielder Jason Bay was released by the Mariners on Tuesday, making the veteran outfielder a free agent after being designated for assignment a week earlier.
The Mariners also returned outfielder Franklin Gutierrez from a Minor League rehab assignment with Triple-A Tacoma, though he remains on the 15-day disabled list and was not added to the active roster.
Since the return of Michael Morse from the disabled list last week, Seattle has five healthy outfielders in Morse, Michael Saunders, Raul Ibanez, Dustin Ackley and Endy Chavez.
Bay, 34, hit .204 with 11 home runs and 20 RBIs in 68 games for the Mariners after signing a one-year, $1 million deal during the offseason.
Gutierrez has played just 18 games for the Mariners this season, batting .267 with five home runs and 11 RBIs in 60 at-bats. He’s had three different stints on the disabled list, the latest due to a strained hamstring.
Position players can only spend 20 days on each Minor League rehab stint, so Gutierrez has returned to the team from his latest time with Triple-A Tacoma, but has not been added to the 25-man roster.
Gutierrez has hit .219 with three home runs and 22 RBIs in 37 games for Tacoma this year.
Wilhelmsen lost his closer’s role for a second time this season after a ninth-inning meltdown at Boston on Thursday when he allowed four straight baserunners without getting an out as the Mariners blew a 7-2 lead in the ninth inning.
Wilhelmsen hasn’t pitched for the Mariners since, but started Tuesday afternoon’s game for Tacoma as the Mariners want to give him a chance to work on his pitches in a potential multi-inning situation and see how things progress.
Wilhelmsen threw two innings for the Rainiers, giving up three hits and three runs — including two homers — in two innings of work while throwing 31 pitches against Iowa.
Wilhelmsen, 29, posted a 4.37 ERA with 24 saves and five blown saves in 47 appearances this season in his second year as closer. He saved 29 games with a 2.50 ERA after taking over the closer’s role from Brandon League in midseason last year.
Rookie right-hander Danny Farquhar has successfully closed out both save situations since Wilhelmsen was taken out of the role Friday.
Capps, 22, is a hard-throwing right-hander who went 2-2 with a 6.37 ERA in 33 appearances for the Mariners before being optioned to Tacoma on July 11. He’s been pitching well for the Rainiers with a 1.64 ERA in seven outings. He’s allowed just six hits with four walks and nine strikeouts in 11 innings.
Wilhelmsen was out of baseball for five seasons from 2004-08 before the Mariners signed him and he made a quick rise through the system, earning a bullpen role in 2011. He was sent down to Double-A Jackson in midseason that year and given 12 starts, but returned to a relief role when he was recalled and has strictly pitched out of the bullpen since.
The Mariners aren’t saying yet if they’re officially converting Wilhelmsen to a starting role, but it appears they’ll at least give him some multiple-inning appearances to work on his pitches and see how things progress.
With a mid-90s fastball, a wicked curve and a changeup, Wilhelmsen has always been an intriguing starting prospect, but he filled a valuable role as closer last year. But after struggling with that situation as this season progressed, it certainly couldn’t hurt to see if Wilhelmsen is more suited to a starting role if that’s how things play out.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge has been sidelined two weeks now after a minor stroke on July 22 and general manager Jack Zduriencik indicated Sunday that the third-year skipper won’t be ready to return yet when the team opens a six-game homestand Monday.
Wedge, 45, remained in Seattle while the team traveled to Boston and Baltimore and will continue to undergo medical tests and be reevaluated in the coming days as he awaits full clearance.
Zduriencik said Wedge is doing well, but he doesn’t want him to return to work until it’s certain he’ll be able to withstand the rigors of the job without any setbacks.
“I don’t think Eric will be with us this week,” Zduriencik said prior to Sunday’s series finale with the Orioles. “I know he has a couple appointments ongoing. He’s got something midweek where he’s going to sit down with doctors.
“He’s doing well. I talk to him every day and he sounds normal and he’s excited to get back here. He wants to get back. But when Eric gets back, you want him to be back. His anxiousness to get back here in the dugout is one thing, but this is a life-long health issue for him. When he gets back managing this club, we want him to be here. You don’t want him to come in here and be here for two or three days.
“The stress of a ballgame, the length of time a manager has to put in and the way he is – he comes early and leaves late – from our standpoint, they just need to sign off and say you’re 100 percent ready to go so we don’t have a bump in the road where he’s out here 3-4 days and then has to take a step back. That’s not fair to Eric or fair to the ballclub. I think we’ll just wait and give it a little more time.”
Zduriencik said he’ll make a further determination when he sits down with Wedge upon returning to Seattle.
“I’ll know more in the middle of the week and Eric will as well,” he said. “I’m anxious to get together with him as soon as I get back home and talk to him and see how he feels and we’ll address it at that time. But when he comes back, we want him to come back full-time and complete.”
Zduriencik also said reliever Stephen Pryor is being shut down for the remainder of the year with a triceps injury that was revealed in an MRI this weekend. Pryor has been on a Minor League rehab recovering from an early season shoulder injury, but it’s not certain if the two injuries are related.
Mariners designated hitter Kendrys Morales finished Friday’s 11-8 loss to the Red Sox with four straight hits, extending his consecutive hit streak to eight at at-bats and putting him one shy of Raul Ibanez’s club record nine in a row set in 2004.
But while the red-hot hitter is putting together an excellent season, he said he’s not worrying about what happens when he becomes a free agent at year’s end. General manager Jack Zduriencik has indicated an interest in talking to Morales about staying in Seattle, but Morales said he’s only concerned with finishing this year strong for now.
“I feel comfortable here. I like what I see,” Morales said Saturday through interpreter Jaime Navarro, the team’s bullpen coach. “We have a young team and I like it a lot. But that’s something they need to work on, a decision from the office, and I’m not going to worry about it and just keep helping the team.
“I haven’t thought about it,” he said. “I’m not worrying about that. I’m worried about finishing strong and after that we’ll talk about it.”
Morales went 4-for-5 in Thursday’s series finale in Boston and 4-for-4 on Friday against the Orioles, becoming just the second player in Mariners history with back-to-back four hit games. Ichiro Suzuki pulled that feat three different times – July 20-21, 2004; Sept. 21-22, 2004 and June 6-7, 2006.
Going into Saturday’s game, Morales had gone 13-for-17 on the current road trip and 22-for-49 (.449) over his last 12 games as he hiked his batting average to .298 on the season.
Morales’ season high was three hits in a game until his back-to-back breakouts, but his career high is five hits in a game set in 2009 when he was with the Angels.
The 30–year-old Cuba native obviously is seeing the ball well right now and has made a conscious effort to get on pitchers quickly during his hot streak.
“I’m trying to be aggressive on the first pitch,” he said. “If they throw them for strikes, I’m going to go after them. That’s the best thing I’ve been doing. Right now I feel comfortable doing that and it’s working for me.”
After Tom Wilhelmsen couldn’t retire four straight batters Thursday and ignited a ninth-inning Red Sox rally in Seattle’s 8-7 loss, acting manager Robby Thompson said Friday the team would go back to a closer-by-committee approach for now.
Wilhelmsen was moved out of the closer role for several weeks at the end of June after running into some midseason troubles, but had regained the job and recorded eight straight saves until Thursday’s meltdown.
Wilhelmsen didn’t actually blow a save in the Red Sox game, since he entered in a non-save situation with a 7-2 lead. Boston wound up scoring six runs while three Seattle relievers managed to get just one out after Wilhelmsen walked two batters and gave up a pair of hits to start the inning.
With manager Eric Wedge still on leave as he recovers from a mild stroke, Thompson and pitching coach Carl Willis discussed the situation and decided a change is in order again.
“As of right now, maybe like in the past, we’ll piece it together and match up and go from there,” Thompson said prior to Friday’s series opener with the Orioles. “Those games like that and even closer games where we’ve got the lead, we’ve got to find a way to win the ballgame.”
Thompson mentioned Oliver Perez, Charlie Furbush, Yoervis Medina and Danny Farquhar as candidates to be used in closing scenarios.
“We’ll let the game and hitters coming up dictate who we’re going to go with in that situation,” he said.
As for Wilhelmsen, who saw his ERA climb to 4.37 after allowing four runs without an out?
“For me watching him, he’s pitching with a little lack of confidence,” Thompson said. “He’s not pounding the strike zone with fastballs like he did in the past to get to his breaking ball and that changeup. At any part of the game, first inning or whatever, if you walk the leadoff hitter, the percentage is high that that guy is going to score.
“You’re talking about the ninth inning, trying to get those last three outs, you can’t give any free passes. That’s like giving a team four or five outs in an inning. You just can’t get away with that,” said Thompson. “Tommy is a strong guy and strong minded. I think he’ll be OK, but I think he needs to refocus and get his confidence back in that fastball.”