It was billed as "The Battle in Seattle," there were even fans at Safeco last night wearing t-shirts featuring the mug shots of the game's starting pitchers. It was the 19-year-old phenom, "King" Felix Hernandez, against the 41-year-old former Mariners' ace and sure-thing Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, and it lived up to the hype.
The rookie and the veteran exchanged hitless frames through two, with Hernandez throwing 97 mile per hour fastballs and sharp curves and Johnson locating both his slider and 95 heaters.
Hernandez began the third by striking out his opponent's personal catcher, John Flaherty, on a wicked curve that came in just below the waste on the outside corner and dropped into the dirt. King Felix then threw a fastball away to Robinson Cano and came back with a change-up over the plate. Hernandez is as good as advertised, but his change-up is the weakest of his three pitches. This one hung up in the zone and Cano deposited it in the right field seats, just beyond the reach of Ichiro Suzuki to give the Yankees a 1-0 lead (note the white t-shirt in the latter photo).
After Johnson pitched another hitless frame (aided by a fantastic play at third base by Alex Rodriguez in which he made a backhanded stab of a sharp bouncer up the line by Suzuki and pivoted on the foul line to make a Jeter-like jump throw to nail the speedy Ichiro by a half step), Gary Sheffield, back from his one-day suspension, led off the fourth by blasting a Hernandez heater over the wall in left to make it 2-0 Yanks.
As it turned out, that would be the end of the scoring in this game, but Johnson and Hernandez continued to deal, blowing away hitters with heat and confounding them with breaking pitches, pitching quickly, all the while backed up by some terrific defense (the Mariners turned three double plays and Alex Rodriguez literally filled an entire highlight reel with his play at third base).
Likely invigorated by being back in Seattle and overshadowed by a young punk less than half his age, Randy Johnson didn't allow a hit through five innings. Given the electricity of the game and the sharpness of his defense, it seemed Johnson had a very real chance of completing his third career no-hitter, but Yuniesky Betancourt lead off the sixth with a double over Matt Lawton's head in left. Betancourt then moved to third on a grounder to shortstop by Suzuki, but Johnson recovered to strikeout Jamal Strong (starting in center for the left-handed Jeremy Reed) and, after Tino Martinez dropped a foul pop up by Raul Ibanez, Alex Rodriguez turned in yet another fine play to strand Betancourt at third.
The Mariners got a man to third again in the seventh. After Johnson struckout Sexson to start the inning, Rodriguez made a wicked backhanded stab of a hot shot by Adrian Beltre, but despite having plenty of time to make his throw, drew Tino Martinez off the bag for what was generously ruled the second Mariner hit of the game. Beltre then moved to second on a Jose Lopez single and to third on a Mike Morse fly to center. Now at 111 pitches and still nursing a 2-0 lead, Johnson reared back and fired a series of mid-90s fastballs to Yorvit Torrealba: 94 high, 94 a tad lower called strike, 95 barely inside, 95 same spot for a called strike. After the second called strike, Torrealba and home plate ump Ron Kulpa took a moment to jaw at each other. Johnson then fired his 116th pitch of the game. Torreabla grounded it to Derek Jeter, who flipped to Robinson Cano at second, just barely forcing out Lopez to end the inning and Johnson's night.
Johnson's final line: 7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 7 K, 68 percent of 116 pitches for strikes.
Johnson's last two starts rank among his best back-to-back efforts of the season:
April 24 (Tex), 29 (Tor): 17 IP, 10 H, 3 R, 1 HR, 4 BB, 16 K
June 11 (StL), 16 (Pit): 16 IP, 9 H, 1 R, 1 HR, 0 BB, 18 K
July 21 (Ana), 26 (Min)*: 14 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 0 HR, 2 BB, 15 K
Aug 26 (KC), 31 (Sea): 15 IP, 7 H, 1 R, 0 HR, 2 BB, 13 K
*this pair, unlike the others which are more evenly split, is largely due to the excellence of the second start
Throughout his career, Johnson has typically eschewed throwing between starts, but, perhaps motivated by his fourth-inning melt-down against the White Sox on the 21st, has thrown off a mound prior to each of these last two starts, and credits doing so with firming up his mechanics. It will be interesting to see if he can turn in another dominating start in his next turn. If so, it will be the first time this season he will have strung together three such performances. Johnson's next start will come on Tuesday at home against the Devil Rays. Johnson has a 7.27 ERA in three starts against the D-Rays on the season, having allowed six home runs to them in 17 1/3 innings.
For his part, Hernandez finished the night with this line:
8 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 HR, 4 BB, 7 K, 56 percent of 108 pitches for strikes.
Singles by Jason Giambi and Cano accounted for the other two hits off Hernandez, while those four walks nearly doubled his total over his first five major league starts combined. The YES broadcasters speculated that Hernandez's wildness suggested a nervousness due to the hype of the match-up, or that he was simply having an off night and he's so good that this is what an off night looks like. Checking his minor league numbers, however, Hernandez tends to walk about three men per nine innings. Seeing as he'd walked five over his previous 36, he was due for some correction in that department, and it's not surprising that it came against the likes of Derek Jeter, Gary Sheffield, Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi, all of whom have drawn more than 60 walks thus far this season and boast an on-base percentage comfortably above .380.
The first seven and a half innings of last night's game were crisp and full of tension, speeding by in just two hours. Once the two teams went to their bullpens, however, a lot of that excitement (and efficiency) drained out of the game. The final inning and a half took thirty minutes, in large part due to the fact that Mike Hargrove needed two pitchers to get through the ninth. Certainly it wasn't the fault of Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera, who combined to pitch two final scoreless frames (using just 23 pitches between them, 70 percent of which were strikes) to nail down a win the Yankees had to have.
The Angels beat Oakland to tie their series at 1-1, while the Red Sox pulled of a second-straight come-from-behind win against the Devil Rays last night, thus the Yankees needed last night's win to hold their place in the playoff hunt, a game up on the Angels for the Wild Card and 2.5 behind the Sox in the East. The one bit of good news from around the league is that the Tigers knocked off the Indians to push the Tribe to third place in the Wild Card race, a game and a half behind the Yanks.
The Yanks and M's wrap up their series this afternoon with a getaway day-game (4:05 EST). In a slightly less stirring match-up, Jaret Wright looks to prove this 5 IP, 5 R outing against the Royals last weekend was a mere hiccup on the road to reliability following two strong post-injury starts. He will take the mound against Joel Pineiro, who has turned in a quality start in four of his last five outings.