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Believe the Hype

It was billed as “The Battle in Seattle,” there were even fans at Safeco last night wearing t-shirts featuring the mug shots of the game’s starting pitchers. It was the 19-year-old phenom, “King” Felix Hernandez, against the 41-year-old former Mariners’ ace and sure-thing Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, and it lived up to the hype.

The rookie and the veteran exchanged hitless frames through two, with Hernandez throwing 97 mile per hour fastballs and sharp curves and Johnson locating both his slider and 95 heaters.

Hernandez began the third by striking out his opponent’s personal catcher, John Flaherty, on a wicked curve that came in just below the waste on the outside corner and dropped into the dirt. King Felix then threw a fastball away to Robinson Cano and came back with a change-up over the plate. Hernandez is as good as advertised, but his change-up is the weakest of his three pitches. This one hung up in the zone and Cano deposited it in the right field seats, just beyond the reach of Ichiro Suzuki to give the Yankees a 1-0 lead (note the white t-shirt in the latter photo).

After Johnson pitched another hitless frame (aided by a fantastic play at third base by Alex Rodriguez in which he made a backhanded stab of a sharp bouncer up the line by Suzuki and pivoted on the foul line to make a Jeter-like jump throw to nail the speedy Ichiro by a half step), Gary Sheffield, back from his one-day suspension, led off the fourth by blasting a Hernandez heater over the wall in left to make it 2-0 Yanks.

As it turned out, that would be the end of the scoring in this game, but Johnson and Hernandez continued to deal, blowing away hitters with heat and confounding them with breaking pitches, pitching quickly, all the while backed up by some terrific defense (the Mariners turned three double plays and Alex Rodriguez literally filled an entire highlight reel with his play at third base).

Likely invigorated by being back in Seattle and overshadowed by a young punk less than half his age, Randy Johnson didn’t allow a hit through five innings. Given the electricity of the game and the sharpness of his defense, it seemed Johnson had a very real chance of completing his third career no-hitter, but Yuniesky Betancourt lead off the sixth with a double over Matt Lawton’s head in left. Betancourt then moved to third on a grounder to shortstop by Suzuki, but Johnson recovered to strikeout Jamal Strong (starting in center for the left-handed Jeremy Reed) and, after Tino Martinez dropped a foul pop up by Raul Ibanez, Alex Rodriguez turned in yet another fine play to strand Betancourt at third.

The Mariners got a man to third again in the seventh. After Johnson struckout Sexson to start the inning, Rodriguez made a wicked backhanded stab of a hot shot by Adrian Beltre, but despite having plenty of time to make his throw, drew Tino Martinez off the bag for what was generously ruled the second Mariner hit of the game. Beltre then moved to second on a Jose Lopez single and to third on a Mike Morse fly to center. Now at 111 pitches and still nursing a 2-0 lead, Johnson reared back and fired a series of mid-90s fastballs to Yorvit Torrealba: 94 high, 94 a tad lower called strike, 95 barely inside, 95 same spot for a called strike. After the second called strike, Torrealba and home plate ump Ron Kulpa took a moment to jaw at each other. Johnson then fired his 116th pitch of the game. Torreabla grounded it to Derek Jeter, who flipped to Robinson Cano at second, just barely forcing out Lopez to end the inning and Johnson’s night.

Johnson’s final line: 7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 7 K, 68 percent of 116 pitches for strikes.

Johnson’s last two starts rank among his best back-to-back efforts of the season:

April 24 (Tex), 29 (Tor): 17 IP, 10 H, 3 R, 1 HR, 4 BB, 16 K

June 11 (StL), 16 (Pit): 16 IP, 9 H, 1 R, 1 HR, 0 BB, 18 K

July 21 (Ana), 26 (Min)*: 14 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 0 HR, 2 BB, 15 K

Aug 26 (KC), 31 (Sea): 15 IP, 7 H, 1 R, 0 HR, 2 BB, 13 K

*this pair, unlike the others which are more evenly split, is largely due to the excellence of the second start

Throughout his career, Johnson has typically eschewed throwing between starts, but, perhaps motivated by his fourth-inning melt-down against the White Sox on the 21st, has thrown off a mound prior to each of these last two starts, and credits doing so with firming up his mechanics. It will be interesting to see if he can turn in another dominating start in his next turn. If so, it will be the first time this season he will have strung together three such performances. Johnson’s next start will come on Tuesday at home against the Devil Rays. Johnson has a 7.27 ERA in three starts against the D-Rays on the season, having allowed six home runs to them in 17 1/3 innings.

For his part, Hernandez finished the night with this line:

8 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 HR, 4 BB, 7 K, 56 percent of 108 pitches for strikes.

Singles by Jason Giambi and Cano accounted for the other two hits off Hernandez, while those four walks nearly doubled his total over his first five major league starts combined. The YES broadcasters speculated that Hernandez’s wildness suggested a nervousness due to the hype of the match-up, or that he was simply having an off night and he’s so good that this is what an off night looks like. Checking his minor league numbers, however, Hernandez tends to walk about three men per nine innings. Seeing as he’d walked five over his previous 36, he was due for some correction in that department, and it’s not surprising that it came against the likes of Derek Jeter, Gary Sheffield, Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi, all of whom have drawn more than 60 walks thus far this season and boast an on-base percentage comfortably above .380.

The first seven and a half innings of last night’s game were crisp and full of tension, speeding by in just two hours. Once the two teams went to their bullpens, however, a lot of that excitement (and efficiency) drained out of the game. The final inning and a half took thirty minutes, in large part due to the fact that Mike Hargrove needed two pitchers to get through the ninth. Certainly it wasn’t the fault of Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera, who combined to pitch two final scoreless frames (using just 23 pitches between them, 70 percent of which were strikes) to nail down a win the Yankees had to have.

The Angels beat Oakland to tie their series at 1-1, while the Red Sox pulled of a second-straight come-from-behind win against the Devil Rays last night, thus the Yankees needed last night’s win to hold their place in the playoff hunt, a game up on the Angels for the Wild Card and 2.5 behind the Sox in the East. The one bit of good news from around the league is that the Tigers knocked off the Indians to push the Tribe to third place in the Wild Card race, a game and a half behind the Yanks.

The Yanks and M’s wrap up their series this afternoon with a getaway day-game (4:05 EST). In a slightly less stirring match-up, Jaret Wright looks to prove this 5 IP, 5 R outing against the Royals last weekend was a mere hiccup on the road to reliability following two strong post-injury starts. He will take the mound against Joel Pineiro, who has turned in a quality start in four of his last five outings.

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1 Alex Belth   ~  Sep 1, 2005 5:04 am

1.  I didn't stay up for the whole game last night but was thrilled and delighted with the outcome. Great job by Cliff recapping the game.

I was trying to figure out who Hernandez reminded me of and the closest thing I could come up with was Freddie Garcia. His delivery might be a bit smoother, but that is who is looked like to me. Oddly enough, Garcia's name was mentioned in Tyler Kepner's write up today in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/01/sports/baseball/01yanks.html):

"In a loose sort of way, Johnson's departure helped the Mariners sign Hernandez. In 1998, Johnson was traded to Houston for a package of prospects including Freddy Garcia, a pitcher from Venezuela.

Hernandez, from Venezuela, was 13 when Garcia joined the Mariners and watched him reel off several solid seasons. He idolized Garcia and signed with Seattle in 2002 partly so he would play for the same team."

2 Shaun P   ~  Sep 1, 2005 7:05 am

2.  I ended up Tivo-ing the game - couldn't stay up - and watched it mostly on fast forward this morning, only stopping to watch the HRs, the nice plays in the field, and some of Unit and Felix's more wicked pitches.

Speaking of which - Extra Innings had the Seattle feed, which did a slo-mo version of the curve Flaherty whiffed on - damn that was movement. As a baseball fan, I hope the Mariners don't ruin that kid's arm, and that he lasts a long time with all his stuff . . . as long as the Yanks always beat him, of course.

3 JVarghese81   ~  Sep 1, 2005 7:05 am

3.  Hell of a game, at least the parts that I could take in. I was glad to see Randy go out there and dominate - I was more or less expecting it (at the very least a very good perf.). Hopefully, that continues - in my mind, the fact that now he's actually asked for, and taken, advice on improvements to his mechanics shows his apparent willingness to try newer things to maintain his edge as he loses MPH on his fastball. It's good that he's doing that and in my mind, it bodes well for the future (not just this year either - he is signed for a while longer).

It would be great to see another Yankee W this afternoon so that we can keep the heat on the other teams in the race and restablish that important MOmentum.

Also, speaking of our Mo - hopefully, not as a jinx but simply stating how well he was pitched this year - Mariano has given ONE RUN away from Yankee stadium this year. One. (Aug. 16th @ Tampa in the midst of WWWMW). His line reads: 28.2IP, 12 Hits, 1 ER(off of 1 HR), 2BBs, 28Ks. That works out to .126 BAA, .63 walks per 9 and 3.77 hits per 9. Truly, super-fan-tabulous.

4 NetShrine   ~  Sep 1, 2005 7:12 am

4.  Alex - I saw the Garcia thing too. A little of that, a little of Pedro, and a little of Rocket too. And, I want to say a little of Dave Steib - but, Felix has different stuff.

5 Fred Vincy   ~  Sep 1, 2005 7:38 am

5.  This was the one I stayed up for and well worth it!

Who was Johnson screaming the F word at in the sixth? Was it Tino for dropping the foul, the batter for daring the stand in against him, himself, or none of the above?

6 tocho   ~  Sep 1, 2005 7:42 am

6.  A-Rod has been unbelievable at 3rd. base. If the voters are not biased, they should just hand him the MVP and the GG right now.

7 Alex Belth   ~  Sep 1, 2005 8:08 am

7.  I don't know if Rodriguez deserves the Gold Glove (is he better than Chavez yet?), but barring a complete collapse in September, the MVP is his to lose. Ortiz is a close competitor but a full-time DH has never won the award. Of course, somebody could have a scorching hot September, Rodriguez could get hurt or have a bad month and the Yankees could miss the playoffs. But if he just has a normal month for him, he'll get the hardware, no matter what the voters think about giving the award to a Yankee. The thing that really impresses me about Rodriguez looking at his month-by-month splits is just how steady he's been.

8 Shaun P   ~  Sep 1, 2005 8:16 am

8.  Agreed on the MVP award tocho, but I don't know enough about how other AL 3Bs field to say for sure on the Gold Glove.

More call-up news, from today's Times:

"(C Wil) Nieves will join the team in Seattle on Thursday, along with relievers (Ramiro) Mendoza and Wayne Franklin and designated hitter Ruben Sierra . . .

(OF Mike) Vento, reliever Scott Proctor and infielder Felix Escalona will probably arrive during the Yankees' next home stand . . .

Hideo Nomo (will) not be called up. . .

Starter Chien-Ming Wang could be back, possibly as a reliever, if he is healthy after his next rehab start for Columbus."

Vento's rate stats look good (.294/.365/.453 in Columbus) - does anyone know what positions he can play in the OF?

9 NetShrine   ~  Sep 1, 2005 8:24 am

9.  RF

10 Rich Lederer   ~  Sep 1, 2005 8:40 am

10.  OK, before we get too sidetracked on A-Rod and the MVP that is his to lose as Alex put it so well and whether he deserves the GG, too, let's focus a bit more on The Once and Future Kings.

The game last night was about the best that baseball has to offer. A classic pitcher's duel. It would have been exciting had the names been Small and Franklin. But RANDY JOHNSON and FELIX HERNANDEZ? C'mon. It doesn't get any better than that.

A 41-year-old with FIVE Cy Young Awards--a guy who is undoubtedly one of the best ten pitchers ever--and a 19-year-old kid who is THE best prospect in baseball and perhaps one of the best teenage pitchers of all time? Add in the fact that the Big Unit was returning to the city where he made his fame? Man oh man, you couldn't write a better script.

I watched nearly every pitch and, mind you, this was during the A's - Angels game. I live in Southern California and such a game is not to be taken lightly, especially when the two teams are battling it out for first place. To show you how closely I follow the Angels, I'm going to the game tonight.

But last night was all about Johnson and Hernandez. I had my reserve ticket on the couch in front of my TV with the MLB Extra Innings package bringing it live to me. An impossibility just a few years ago.

Boy, did I make the right choice. Johnson was vintage Johnson. 95-mph heaters, pinpoint control, and a fire in his belly not quite seen of late--at least not to that magnitude. I absolutely loved the confrontation with Torrealba that Cliff mentioned. Flaherty did a great job in moving his body and the target at the last split second and Johnson was busting fastballs inside on the RHB's hands all night. He was jacked, let me tell ya.

As for Hernandez, what can you say? Has anyone seen better stuff than that before. I don't mean from a 19-year-old. I'm talking 29-year-olds and 39-year-olds. His four-seam fastball that sits at 97-98 mph is in the top 1% velocity-wise and his two-seam fastball is a nasty cutter that enables him to get 3.5 groundballs for every flyball (which puts him in the top 1% there, too). Throw in a hard-breaking curve and an effective changeup and this guy's stuff is as good as anybody's I've ever seen.

A night I'll remember for a long, long time.

11 Nick from Washington Heights   ~  Sep 1, 2005 8:52 am

11.  A while back, Steve Lombardi at WasWatching did a ranking of the best offensive seasons by a Yankee over the last 22 years. The ranks were based on Runs Created Above Average (RCAA). Surprisingly (at least to me), as good as A-Rod has been this year, his projected totals do not match Jeter's 1999. A-Rod's projected RCAA ranked 4th behind Jeter's 1999, Rickey Henderson's 1985 and Giambi's 2002. Since I'm too young to remember the Rickey campaign of 1985 (I started following the Yanks right before the Polonia, Cadaret, Plunk fiasco) I can't comment on how that season compares to A-Rod's. But, ignoring the objectivity of stats (hey, our president ignores the objectivity of facts. Why can't I?) for a second and just relying on my eyes I have to say that A-Rod's season is the best by a Yankee I've ever witnessed. Seemingly better than Jeter's 1999 and Giambi's 2002. This leads me to a question for all you Yanks fans young and old: What season would you rank as #1 of all the seasons you've watched?

12 debris   ~  Sep 1, 2005 9:20 am

12.  I'm not a Yankee fan but number one Yankee hater of All Time. I'd have to say that the #1 Yankee season of all time that I witnessed was that of Mickey Mantle in 1956, which I endured as a Brooklyn fan.

13 DarrenF   ~  Sep 1, 2005 9:20 am

13.  In response to Nick:

1) '78 Guidry.
2) '85 Henderson.
3) '85 Mattingly.
4) '01 Clemens.
5) '97 Tino.
6) '96 Rivera.
7) '94 Gallego. Kidding! I'm just kidding!

But also don't forget:

1) '94 O'Neill, where he batted about .500 for the first month.
2) Prime Bernie any year late '90s.
3) Jeter's '99. While still in his prime, '99 was his peak.
4) '80 Reggie.

'05 ARod is unranked because it's not completed. I once wrote on this board that I dreamed about ARod hitting 50 and 150. I'll take 48 and 135. When all is said and done, it will be fourth-best at worst.

As for Rickey '85, it's a whole other story. Somebody should write a book. 146 runs, 80 stolen bases, 24 hrs and no MVP.

In 1985, this was my life:

Benny Hill at 7:30.
Yankee game starts at 8:00.
Rickey on first base at 8:01.
Rickey on second base at 8:02.
Rickey on third base as 8:03.
Mattingly drive him in at 8:04.

I believe Mattingly set the record for sac flies that season. Rickey was the MVP.

Sorry to be so longwinded. But a good question, Nick.

14 Shaun P   ~  Sep 1, 2005 9:56 am

14.  Thanks, Steve. I guess Vento will help rest Sheff's achy knee then.

Nick, I remember the '85 Yanks, and I remember being amazed. That was the season that got me hooked on baseball. I remember feeling that Mattingly was the best ballplayer alive - to me, he just gave off this dominating aura . . .

I have a hard time choosing between Mattingly that year and A-Rod this year. The objective adult I am now says A-Rod, but the kid in me can't forgot Donnie Baseball in '85. Good question, indeed.

15 rbj   ~  Sep 1, 2005 10:07 am

15.  Sweet game. I only caught the first five innings (which seemed to be all that was needed). I was actually predicting strikes before Randy threw them, just getting the sense that he was going to throw one in. That hasn't happened in a long time. Make Randy angry. I like it when he's angry.
Is Hernandez always a bit wild, or was he just overpumped for this game? It was kind of funny watching Tino after his first strikeout "what the hell was that?"

16 Alex Belth   ~  Sep 1, 2005 10:17 am

16.  rbj, I think Cliff answered your question about his control in the thread last night, noting that Hernandez averaged about 3 walks a game in the minors. His rate has been lower since up in the big leagues, but that's just a handful of starts. Also, watching a hitter of Tino's caliber last night, I'm thinking this guy doesn't stand a chance. He's going to have to guess right and get lucky. Remember when Chili Davis hit that solo dinger off Pedro the night Martinez whiffed 17 at the Stadium? That kind of lucky.

In his second at-bat Jeter was called out on strikes. The third strike was a fastball on the outside corner, an absolutely perfect pitch. Jeter bitched to the home plate ump a little but it was a strike, which reminded me of the famous story about Bob Feller told by Lefty Gomez I believe. Gomez came up and after two quick strikes he did not see Feller struck him out with another pitch he did not pick up. At which point he turned to the ump and said, "Didn't that one sound a little low?"

Watching Jeter last night he should have said, "Didn't that sound a little outside?"

Say goodnight Gracie.

17 Alex Belth   ~  Sep 1, 2005 10:22 am

17.  As far as the greatest single season by a Yankee, without looking at the numbers, and going strictly on my memory (which is as subjective as they come) I'd say the best ones were:

Guidry in '78, Henderson and Mattingly in '85, Reggie in '80. Rivera's 96 season was phenomenal but I'd be willing to bet that Goose had a few comperable years. The seaosn isn't over yet, so I don't want to rank Rodriguez's season yet, but it'd be up there. Jeter's 99 was great. I wouldn't put Clemens 2001 in the top ten. I think Mussina was the better pitcher that year despite Clemens' record (and if the writers are consistent, Clemens won't win the award this year when he truly deserves it because his won-loss record isn't outstanding).

18 monkeypants   ~  Sep 1, 2005 11:26 am

18.  Responding to Nick (#11)--The best seasons I watched? Guidry in 1978, but I was pretty young, so it's more the memory of the awareness of the season (it's hard for me to recall when I actually SAW an event at that age, or just remember having heard about it so much). Mattingly 1985 is the best that I truly remember. As someone posted before, the rational adult in me knows that Henderson's year was better (and that Boggs was the better player even during Mattingly's peak), but in 1985 my age, my relatively innocent yet very serious interest in baseball, that Mattingly was my favorite player (I even had seen him play in the minor leagues and tracked his whole career), that Mattingly had a pretty awsome year (especially with the traditional triple crown stats), and the great pennant race with Toronto all combined to make that the most magical and memorable player season for me.

19 Zack   ~  Sep 1, 2005 11:45 am

19.  As good as Jeter's '99 was, Bernie's '99 was almost equal to Jeter's. .342 BA, .435 OBP, 25 HR, 115 RBI. It's amazing actually how most people forget Giambi's 2002, which was really really good.

20 DarrenF   ~  Sep 1, 2005 12:05 pm

20.  Hi Alex,

I think '01 Clemens was one of my favorite because, for most of the season, he only had one loss. It was just an event getting ready to watch every game to see if he could actually keep it up. Did he actually attain 20-1 at one point? I don't recall, but I know he was close.

Strangely, two of his losses came against TB.

Also, his bid for his 20th win was delayed due to the terrorist attacks.

21 Ken Arneson   ~  Sep 1, 2005 12:17 pm

21.  Zito/Colon on Tuesday, followed by Johnson/Hernandez on Wednesday. Them's some great baseball.

As for the ARod/Chavez gold glove question, I think ARod might take it. All things equal, I think Chavez is better than ARod, but Chavez has been playing with an injured shoulder all year, making his throws weak at times, and inaccurate at others. As a result, this hasn't been a vintage season for Chavez defensively.

22 mhmitch   ~  Sep 1, 2005 12:51 pm

22.  For those of us who grew up with the team in the early 70s, I nominate Bobby Murcer's 1971 season as top 10 material with a 331/.427/.543. He led the AL with a .970 OPS and a OPS+ of 181. I would imagine that translates into a nice RCAA. As far as the seasons that made the biggest impression while I was watching it happen, it's hard to beat '78 Guidry or Mattingly of the '84-'87 era.

23 rbj   ~  Sep 1, 2005 1:28 pm

23.  You're right Alex. I'd forgotten the actual post. That's what I get for getting distracted by work.

IT just seemed to me that Felix was missing his spots a lot, but that hitters didn't want to take a chance on the ball being out of the strikezone.

And I go with Guidry '78.
Plus the whole team in '98

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