My youngest daughter is at a wonderful age. She turns ten years old next week, so even though she’s smart enough and inquisitive enough that she’s rapidly figuring out the way the world works, she hasn’t yet let go of the magic. Every time she sees a rainbow she wonders about the pot of gold, and she was thrilled when she lost a tooth the day before Easter because she wanted the Tooth Fairy to meet the Easter Bunny when their paths crossed in her bedroom that night. In short, she believes.
So Kate surely would’ve believed me if had told her on Monday afternoon that the Yankees were going to jump on Seattle’s Felix Hernández for seven runs in the first five innings. In her world, everything is possible. In our world, what happened in Seattle defies all explanation.
With each team’s best pitcher on the mound, the game started out exactly as you’d expect, with lots of zeroes. In his return to the team that traded him away a few years ago, Michael Pineda was good, holding the Mariners scoreless over the first three innings, but Hernández was even better.
King Felix faced only nine batters over those same three innings, but no one came even close to a hit. Brett Gardner struck out on three pitches, Chase Headley and Alex Rodríguez grounded out, Mark Teixeira struck out on three pitches, Brian McCann lasted five pitches before fanning, Carlos Beltrán popped up the first pitch he saw, and finally Didi Gregorius, Stephen Drew, and Ramon Flores all grounded out. It was a 21-pitch clinic that was so impressive that I watched it again in full after the game ended. For the second time on the road trip the Yankees were staring a no-hitter in the face; not a single New York hitter had come close to touching the King.
But then something unexplainable happened. Samson was shorn, the king lost his crown, the jester lost his jingle. Whatever analogy you choose, it falls short. Getting his second look at Hernández, Gardner led off the top of the fourth and put his bat in the way of a fastball, slapping it into left field for a single. On a 3-2 pitch to Headley, Gardner took off for second and cruised into third when Headley’s ball fell in front of centerfielder Austin Jackson. Neither hit was authoritative, so as A-Rod dug in with runners on first and third, there was no reason to believe the Yanks would get another opportunity like this against Hernández. But Felix’s humanity began to show. He bounced a 1-0 changeup through his catcher’s legs for a wild pitch, allowing Gardner to score the game’s first run. Three pitches later A-Rod watched ball four and headed to first; a minute later King Felix issued another free pass, this time to Teixeira, and the bases were loaded for McCann.
The Yankee catcher worked himself into a 2-0 count, but then banged into a 4-6-3 double play. Headley brought in the second run, but the rally was dead. Beltrán worked a seven-pitch walk, the third base on balls in the inning, but Gregorius foolishly swung at the first pitch he saw and grounded out to first.
Hernández had survived the fourth, but the sharks were still circling when the fifth began. Felix started the frame by walking the fearsome Stephen Drew, Flores singled crisply to right, and Gardner walked (the fifth in eight batters) to load the bases yet again. Headley poked a sacrifice fly out to left to score Drew from third, but then A-Rod grounded a ball to left field to load the bases yet again, bringing Teixeira to the plate.
At this point is was clear that we weren’t seeing the real Slim Shady. Hernández had lost the plate, and home plate umpire Tony Randazzo, whose strike zone had been more than generous in the first three innings, was now punishing the King’s lack of control by squeezing the zone tighter and tighter. When Teixeira jumped out to a 2-o count, the urgency was palpable. The Yankees needed a hit in the worst way, to give Pineda some breathing room and to push Hernandez out the door.
The next pitch was a lazy 90 mph fastball, and Teixeira hammered it to right center field. The only reason it wasn’t an obvious home run off the bat was because of who had thrown the pitch; it landed several rows beyond the 380 foot marker, and suddenly the Yankees had a touchdown edge on the best pitcher in the American League. Five pitches later Beltrán shot a double to left center, and after just four and two-thirds of an inning, the King was dead.
As it turned out, Pineda wouldn’t have needed that grand slam. He had struck out three Mariners in the bottom of the fourth, and now with this huge lead he put his foot firmly on the gas, striking out four of the next six hitters while setting the Mariners down in order in the fifth and sixth innings. He faltered in the seventh, yielding a single, a triple, a double, and a walk as the M’s scored twice, but it hardly mattered. Pineda had been the best pitcher in the stadium on Monday night, and it hadn’t been close. Yankees 7, Mariners 2. Dreams, apparently, still come true.