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Next for the Seahawks: Handling the burden of expectations 6/14, 01:45 PM
With Felix Hernandez as the life of the party, the Mariners are fun again
Felix Hernandez felt the energy from the moment he exited the bullpen before the game.
Here stood 39,204 people at Safeco Field, dressed mostly in yellow T-shirts celebrating his perfect game last week, waving placards featuring a K with a crown atop it. They chanted his name. Felix! Felix! They turned a beautiful ballpark that has often sat two-thirds empty the past two years into what it should be.
"I got chills," Hernandez said, you reckon he would've wept on this night if annihilating the Cleveland Indians wasn't already atop his agenda.
During the game, he told himself, 'Wow, this is unbelievable! This is pretty amazing. This is something special." For a pitcher so accustomed to success, for an ace who was crowned King Felix as a princely teenager, Hernandez remains as unadulterated in his appreciation of an adoring public as a little leaguer hearing applause for the first time. Never will there be another star athlete more genuine than the native Venezuelan who has more than fulfilled the high expectations placed on him at an early age. Never will there be another star athlete more generous with his joy.
This party was about him, and he made it about you, too.
You're always welcome to join Hernandez as he dances with greatness. He's Griffey-esque in his way that he rejoices playing the game of baseball. But he's not as shy off the field and makes himself way more accessible. It's easy to revel in Hernandez's accomplishments, and that's why nearly 40,000 folks showed up on a Tuesday night to let Hernandez know how much it meant to them that he pitched the first perfect game in Mariners history last week.
If a lesser talent had achieved it, the crowd wouldn't have been as robust. If a lesser person had achieved it, the crowd wouldn't have been as spirited.
"That's the best game I've ever pitched in here at Safeco Field," Hernandez gushed afterward.
Let's hope the man receives an opportunity to start a playoff game at Safeco soon. He deserves it, and when that happens, here's guessing that a fan base dying to believe again will outdo even this incredible atmosphere.
Which brings us to the craziest part of the party. The Mariners, who had developed a knack for embarrassing themselves in recent years when playing in front of their precious few large home crowds, weren't wallflowers this time. They played up to the moment in a 5-1 victory over Cleveland. And this young team is starting to leave the impression that your playoff daydreams aren't such a waste of optimism anymore.
In the second half of this season, the Mariners have established that they are onto something. Their rebuilding still requires a series of shrewd moves to improve the offense, but it's easier to see a pathway to success.
The Mariners have a 24-13 record in their past 37 games, the best record in the American League since the All-Star break. They are now 60-64 and eyeing a return to a .500 record. And dare we mention that they're lurking seven games behind Baltimore for the final wild-card playoff spot? OK, let's not start thinking too far ahead, but these young players are getting the job done right now. And they're doing it not by fluke, but by design: Pitching, defense, timely hitting and grit. That's exactly how they want to built this team, except with a better offense.
Perhaps Tuesday's crowd was a glimpse of what could be if the Mariners truly are building a sustainable contender.
"It was electric out there," Mariners manager Eric Wedge marveled.
Wedge allowed himself a moment to imagine how the fans would react if they had an entire team to celebrate.
"Hey, this is the way it should be," he said. "This is what we're shooting for."
With Capitan FiFi atop the rotation and asserting himself as the leader of the entire clubhouse, the Mariners aren't just shooting aimlessly.
In his first start since the perfect game, Hernandez was brilliant, albeit human. He allowed a hit to Cleveland leadoff man Jason Kipnis to start the game, ending his streak of retiring 32 consecutive batters. Still, Hernandez turned in another outstanding effort, pitching 7 2/3 innings and allowing seven singles and a walk. He struck out five, and the lone run he allowed came after shortstop Brendan Ryan couldn't snag a potential double-play groundball from former Mariner Casey Kotchman because of a bad hop. For the season, Hernandez is now 12-5 with a 2.54 ERA, and he has won eight straight decisions.
Hernandez exited with two outs and two runners on in the eighth inning. The crowd stood and applauded as loudly as it had all night. Hernandez lifted the cap off his head and turned in every direction of Safeco Field. But before the final cheer, before Hernandez acknowledged his appreciation, he patted Ryan, who made only his sixth error of the season that inning, on the head and made a gesture to ensure he shook off the mistake.
"That's the kind of guy he is," Ryan said.
That's why the Mariners knew they had to win this game for their humble and thoughtful Capitan.
After the Indians tied the game at 7 in the top of the seventh, the Mariners responded with four runs in the bottom of the inning. Catcher John Jaso had an RBI double for a 2-1 lead. Then Jesus Montero crushed a three-run homer into the upper deck in left field to give the Mariners a 5-1 cushion.
"I helped Felix tonight," Montero said. "That was most important."
The 22-year-old Montero tasted the playoffs last season with the New York Yankees, but he was still impressed with this regular-season atmosphere.
"We were expecting a lot of people -- but not that many," Montero said. "It was unbelievable. Felix is special. He's King Felix. That's why he brought so many people to the stadium."
And the fans were rewarded with the kind of performance that should make many of them want to come back.
The Mariners have won seven games in a row and 14 of their last 15 at Safeco Field. They were once an awful 18-29 at home, and people couldn't mention the ballpark without debating whether the team should move the fences in next season. Now, the Mariners seem to have a Safeco-complaint ballclub.
No wonder they have momentum, as well as a good vibe about them. They're a likeable team, and they're only getting more enjoyable to watch daily.
Hernandez's perfect party turned into a chance to legitimize the Mariners' progress. For a change, the Mariners took advantage of the opportunity.
The Mariners threw a party, and the entire team showed up, and all had a good time. It was perhaps the most thrilling night at Safeco since the 116-win season in 2001.
Turns out the Mariners haven't forgotten how to be fun.