Sean Rodriguez could only look as strike three dropped in on him, the second consecutive strike at which he looked after opening with two balls and swinging and missing on the third pitch of the sequence, a nasty breaking ball that was nothing compared to what dropped in on him for the finish.
Felix Hernandez could only wonder if he was really there, when this happened to him, after opening all three Tampa Bay batters he faced in the ninth with ball one, then putting on a display of finishing what he started at a level once thought the exclusive domain of a Sandy Koufax. Maybe that was why, after he dropped strike three in on Rodriguez, he raised his arms as high as he could.
He was really there, pitching the first perfect game in Seattle Mariners history, the third in Show this season (following Philip Humber and Matt Cain), and the first by a pitcher whose own team was the victim of a perfect game (Humber’s) earlier in the season.
And he finished with a flourish. His ninth inning started with ball one to pinch-hitter Desmond Jennings, before a swinging strike, a called strike, and two fouls set up the swinging strikeout on a fastball down. It continued with pinch-hitter Jeff Keppinger taking ball one, looking at strike one, swinging on strike two, then grounding out modestly enough to shortstop. Then came Rodriguez. It was probably too much to expect Hernandez might strike out the side to finish the perfecto, even if he did strike out the side in the sixth and eighth innings, but it proved not all that much to ask him to drop a filthy slider in for strike three right in on Rodriguez to close it out.
King Felix started his afternoon pitching to contact, getting a leadoff fly out (Sam Fuld) and a pair of ground outs (B.J. Upton, Matt Joyce). He got the only run he’d need to work with in the bottom of the third, when Brendan Ryan (leadoff single) stole second with two outs and went on to third on a wild pitch from Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson, before Jesus Montero sent him home with a clean single to left.
He could have been forgiven if he’d been thinking that soon that he might need to be perfect. Until Ryan crossed the plate the Mariners had wasted scoring opportunities in both opening innings. First, Dustin Ackley’s leadoff single in the first got turned into a double play two pitches later, when Michael Saunders hit one on the screws, on a line, and right to second base, from which point Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist fired to first to kill Ackley dead. Then, in the second, a two-out uprising—Justin Smoak safe on an infield error and Trayvon Robinson singling him to second—got snuffed when Eric Thames flied out to left for the side.
You had to feel for Hellickson. On any other afternoon, a five-hitter with one earned run on a seven-inning jacket, and one inning of shutout relief from Kyle Farnsworth, should be more than enough to win a game.
Hernandez didn’t bring off his jewel without a few dicey moments here and there. He started with ball one to eleven of the 27 hitters he faced; he was behind in the count to nine hitters. But he was aided and abetted by a few first pitch-hitting Rays hitting into immediate outs, and he only fell as far behind as ball three to one Ray. (Zobrist in the second.)
About the only moments , and about the only moment in which Safeco Field might have had its hearts elevated into its throats were in the top of the first, when Fuld drove one to the track in right center where Thames ran it down for the catch; and, the top of the fifth, when Evan Longoria led off by lining one right past Hernandez’s glove but right into that of Ackley at second.
That was just about all the help Hernandez needed this afternoon. Maybe he saw what was needed in June, when it took six of his staff mates to no-hit the Los Angeles Dodgers in interleague play, and decided it just wasn’t right to ask anyone else to finish what he started, as if he wasn’t getting better as the game got later.
“It was in my mind, the whole game, it was in my mind,” he said when it was over.
The whole game is in the record books now. For the record, it’s the third no-hitter in Seattle history and only the second in which one pitcher did the job all by his lonesome. King Felix is traveling now in Randy Johnson’s company. Not a bad place to be.