Monday July 6th, 2009

Ichiro Suzuki was lying on his back in the corner of the visitor's clubhouse at Yankee Stadium last week doing his usual pregame stretching when a large, muscular man suddenly jumped on top of him and began ... tickling him? Yes, Ken Griffey Jr. was tickling his fellow outfielder, both players acting like schoolchildren and wearing smiles as broad as the room they were playing in.

As Ichiro squealed and giggled with delight, Griffey kept asking, "Who's the man? Who's the man?" A breathless Ichiro managed to squeak out in accented English, "I'm the man," and only then did the 39-year-old Griffey relent.

With all due respect to the pair of future Hall of Famers, the real man in the Seattle clubhouse these days is the one whose locker they were rolling around in front of: ace right-handed pitcher Felix Hernandez, who watched the scene, which has become something of a common occurrence before Mariners games this season, with a bemused grin, before quickly going back to his side conversation.

With Ichiro and Griffey about, Hernandez will never be the biggest star in Seattle's firmament, but he may be the best player in their present and he is surely the biggest hope for their future. Having just been selected for his first career All-Star appearance on Sunday, Hernandez is finally living up to the prohibitive amount of hype that greeted his arrival in the bigs as a skinny teenager from Venezuela four years ago. His success is further proof stars in baseball are not born, they are made. Who would have guessed it would take until his fifth season for Hernandez to reach his first All-Star Game? And yet when Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon is trying to decide on a starting pitcher for the game this week, he could do a lot worse than to pick Hernandez, who is now 8-3 with a 2.62 ERA and 114 strikeouts in 116.2 innings pitched, numbers that have him very much in the running for not only the starting nod but also for the Cy Young award.

Whether or not he's first to the mound in St. Louis next week, this has been a breakout season for the 23-year-old Hernandez. In addition to entrenching himself as one of the best starters in the game, Hernandez has served notice that if he keeps this pace up, he may establish the next threshold for a free-agent contract by a pitcher. He will be a free agent after the 2011 season, when he will still be just 25 years old, in contrast to Johan Santana and CC Sabathia, free-agent gems of the past two offseasons, who were both 28 when they signed their contracts.

A large contract, no matter where he signs it, would be the king's ransom Hernandez has been projected to receive since he started his professional career. He was dubbed "King Felix" for his exploits as a teenage minor leaguer, then arrived in Seattle as a 19-year-old with an almost unreasonable amount of hype. Over the first four seasons of his career, he showed glimpses of superstardom -- such as when he tossed a one-hit shutout in Fenway Park in his second start of the 2007 season -- but has mostly been a puzzle to managers, coaches and fans who expected that by now Hernandez would be well into his reign as the best pitcher in the American League.

This has been a tough spring for kings. King James got bounced in the conference finals, the King of Pop died and members of the King of Norway's royal family were being spied on by his own government. King Felix endured his own difficulties. On May 19, he lost to the Angels 6-5, dropping his record to 4-3 and raising his ERA to 4.13. Afterward, manager Don Wakamatsu chastised Hernandez for his casual approach on the mound that helped lead to four stolen bases by the Angels. "I never questioned his competitiveness, I questioned if he was being intelligent about it," said Wakamatsu. "We need him to live up to the anointment he got early on in his career."

Beginning with his very next start, Hernandez did just that. He shut down the Giants on just one earned run over eight innings to begin a stretch of eight consecutive quality starts that is still ongoing, and has dropped his ERA a full run and a half. The catalyst may have been some words of encouragement Hernandez got from Randy Johnson before his start against the Giants. Johnson had done likewise for Hernandez once before; during Hernandez's rookie season in 2005, Johnson told the then 19-year-old he was impressed with his stuff.

Ah, yes, that stuff. Few pitchers in baseball can match the gifts Hernandez has. This is the scouting report his catcher, Rob Johnson, gave: "Four-seam fastball that cuts six inches and is anywhere from 93 to 98 mph. It's nasty. A two-seamer anywhere from 96 to 90 that moves a foot and a half. Nasty. A change that acts like a split finger, diving down, goes about 90. That one's nasty. A slider, 91 miles per hour, that has downward action and that he used to get back in the count. A nasty pitch. And a nasty curveball that he throws 82 to 84."

So that's fastball: nasty. Other fastball: nasty. Curveball, slider and changeup, all: What's that word again? "I'm telling you, man, that's nasty," Johnson said. Then, he adds with a laugh. "Some days, he only has three nasty pitches."

Hernandez is less impressed with himself. He allows that he is more mature now, due in part to Wakamatsu's lecture, but also says he is more aggressive and more confident than he's ever been before. In one breath he's crediting "Videos, man -- videos, videos" for his success and in the next he's dismissing them and scouting reports and trumpeting his own ability to rely on his "nasty" arsenal to get hitters out. "I don't like to pay too much attention to that stuff," he said. "I know what to do."

For instance, Johnson says that when facing the Yankees, "He'd have a plan of attack against [Derek] Jeter or Alex [Rodriguez] or [Mark] Teixeira, guys like that. But the rest of the lineup, he'd say, I trust my stuff."

"His maturity is better, his work habits are better, he's more routine-oriented," said pitching coach Rick Adair, ticking off the ways in which Hernandez has improved during the season.

To keep that improvement going, the Mariners are trying to build in as much rest as possible for their young ace. Three of his past seven starts have come on six days' rest; not surprisingly, those starts have been his three highest pitch counts of the year. The most recent of those outings came on June 27 against the Dodgers in Los Angeles. In one of the best-pitched games by any pitcher all year, Hernandez went eight innings, allowed just four hits and one run while striking out nine against just one walk. He was so dominant that even the men in blue, those unbiased arbiters of justice, couldn't help being impressed. After one particularly outstanding pitch, home plate umpire Chuck Meriwether whispered in Johnson's ear, "Wow. That was nasty."

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