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The Strike Zone

Felix Hernandez K's career-high 15, Mariners beat Rays

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Sunday provided the #KillTheWin crowd with another bit of evidence for its ever-growing collection of exhibits. Seattle reliever Yoervis Medina got official credit for the Mariners’ 5-0 victory over the Rays, as Medina pitched a scoreless bottom of the eighth before his club pushed across all five of its runs in the top of the ninth. However, even though one column of the record book won’t reflect it, the day, and the win, really belonged to Mariners’ starter Felix Hernandez.

Hernandez was masterful through seven innings, during which he threw exactly 100 pitches. He allowed four hits – three of them singles – and one walk. He extended his streak of starts without giving up a home run to nine (the last time a Hernandez pitch ended up leaving the yard was on April 21, and it has happened just three times this season). And, most notably, 15 of the 21 outs he recorded came on strikes. Hernandez’s 15 strikeouts represented the most he has ever had in a game – he set his previous personal best, of 13, in August of 2010 – and tied the Red Sox’s Jon Lester for the most by any pitcher this season.

Hernandez’s performance on Sunday was on one level a matter of an ace pitcher beating up on a reeling club. The Rays, the preseason AL East favorites in the estimation of many, are now a majors-worst 24-40 after having lost 12 of their last 13. But it also served to exemplify the type of pitcher Hernandez has become at the age of 28.

Back in 2010, when he struck out those 13 Oakland A’s, his fastball averaged 95 mph, according Brooks Baseball, and maxed out at 98. On Sunday, he reached 95 only once – his average fastball came in at 93 – but he pitched with pinpoint command, particularly on his off-speed and breaking pitches. In fact, 73 of his 100 offerings were changeups, sliders or curves. The Rays managed to put just four of those pitches in play, not one safely.

Hernandez has emerged as a model of how a pitcher can continue to dominate, and even improve, once he has reached middle age in baseball terms and he no longer has the pure velocity he once did. His sinker and his command have allowed him to give up fewer homers than ever before, while walking fewer batters than ever before, while – after Sunday – striking out more batters than ever before (his current rate of 9.7 K’s per nine would represent a career high).

He also could win more games than ever before: he had been the victor in five straight outings coming into Sunday, and remains, at 8-1, more or less on pace for his first 20-win season. Of course, even he would likely tell you there are many things more important than that. As Sunday demonstrated, he is killing all of those as well.
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