Facing Felix Hernandez: It Ain't Easy

Stepping up to the plate to face Felix Hernandez is no easy task for opposing batters, but that goes without saying. InsidethePark's Jay Hobbs talked with several members of the Lake Elsinore Storm this week about what kind of approach batters must take at the plate against the flame-throwing 18-year-old.

The count is 1-2 on Lake Elsinore's Marcus Nettles. It's the eighth inning and the Storm leadoff hitter has reached base three times already against Inland Empire's 18-year-old right-hander Felix Hernandez.

Nettles, who had the only two hits against Hernandez on May 27, led off the June 16 matchup with a single up the middle, but was later picked off first base.

In his second plate appearance, Nettles was hit in the arm by a wayward fastball. True, he reached base, but since Hernandez's heater is clocked between 93 and 97 MPH, he had to be asking himself if 90 feet was really worth the trouble.

Nettles then walked in his third trip to the plate, Hernandez' 24th free pass issued in 79.1 innings in 2004. Not bad, considering the teenager has struck out a California League-best 93 batters in only his second professional season, carrying a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.9.

Hernandez, one of five 66ers to be named to the 2004 California League all-star team, credits fellow all-star Rene Rivera, his catcher, along with pitching coach Dwight Bernard for much of his success at the high-A level.

Aside from his impressive fastball, Hernandez throws a curveball and a changeup with uncommon accuracy, especially for a pitcher who at this age might be worrying about high school proms and graduation had he grown up in the United States.

"He has command of all his pitches, and you don't ever see that in an 18-year-old," Bernard said. "Maybe a kid will have control of his fastball at that age, but you don't see guys that young who have control of two off-speed pitches too."

As Nettles, who is playing his third season for Lake Elsinore, shortens up with a two-strike count, he no doubt is thinking back to his other at-bats against Hernandez. Although Hernandez might throw any pitch in any location with two strikes, the Storm leadoff hitter is only sitting on one pitch.

"He can throw three good pitches, but you just have to look for that fastball – it's the easiest pitch to hit," Nettles said. "I look for a fastball somewhere over the plate. He's an aggressive pitcher, so I try to stay aggressive against him because that's how to beat a power pitcher."

As expected, that philosophy is the consensus in the Lake Elsinore dugout.

"You have to look for the fastball, especially against a guy like that," Storm right fielder Paul McAnulty said. "If I look breaking ball, I have no chance on the fastball – he'll blow me away. He'll throw the fastball, you just can't miss it. If he beats you on a curveball, you just have to tip your cap."

"He's an aggressive pitcher who's going to come after you every time," Storm first baseman Michael Johnson said. "You have to look for his fastball and he's tougher because he can work both sides of the plate too. "

In addition to the tutelage Hernandez has received from his pitching coach and battery mate this year, the 6-foot-3, 170-pounder said that spring training conversations with current Mariner ace Freddy Garcia improved his confidence and approach on the mound.

Garcia, a fellow Venezuelan, told Hernandez to pitch to his own strengths rather than trying to exploit a hitter's weakness. The approach has worked for Hernandez, whose 3.06 ERA is fourth in the Cal League. His seven wins are third in the league.

"I don't worry about studying hitters too much," Hernandez said through an interpreter. "I make the hitter beat my best stuff, and then I'll adjust and throw him something else. I'll change my sequences to hitters, but never my composure."

Back to June 16 and a 1-2 count to Marcus Nettles in the eighth inning.

Hernandez, who is pitching with a 7-0 lead, gets the signs from Rivera and rocks back into his methodical windup. About seven radar guns raise up, just as they have for the 100 pitches prior to this one.

Hernandez delivers and Nettles takes a breaking ball on the outside corner – called strike three. The inning is over, and with a tip of a cap, Nettles heads out to left field.

"Kid K" wound up tossing 8.2 innings in the game, the longest outing of his professional career, and was pulled when he lost his bid for a shutout on an RBI groundout. Hernandez ended up striking out eight and his walk to Nettles was his only one in the game.

Just a typical day in the life of Felix Hernandez and the batters that face him.

Seattle Clubhouse Top Stories