"King Felix" Celebrates 19th Birthday in Style

FRESNO, Calif. – After two hours of constant showers at Grizzlies Stadium prior to Friday night's Tacoma Rainiers game against Fresno, the skies started to clear and the sun began to shine. Minutes later, one of the brightest, most majestic rainbows anyone could ever imagine appeared in the distance, spanning from beyond the left field foul pole to the area beyond right-center field. It was a sign of things to come.

This rainbow wasn't a typical rainbow, and this night wasn't a normal night. It was Felix Hernandez's first start of the season, and it came smack-dab on his 19th birthday. The stars were aligning, and the rainbows were cooperating.

The only bad news was the Rainiers bats weren't hitting. Hernandez, touted as the top pitching prospect in baseball, went on to pitch sensationally in his first Triple-A outing but came out the loser nonetheless in Tacoma's 3-0 defeat to Fresno.

Hernandez allowed one unearned run in six innings against the Grizzlies, giving up five hits and one walk along the way. Using his incredibly advanced array of pitches to his advantage throughout his time on the mound, he also struck out four.

The Grizzlies' lone run off the newly-turned 19-year-old came in the first inning after an early dose of bad luck. After giving up a single to right field by Adam Shabala to lead off the game, Hernandez got former Mariners' farmhand Mickey Lopez to ground sharply to second base for what appeared to be a sure double-play.

But Ramon Santiago, normally a reliable second baseman, booted the ball and allowed Lopez to reach first safely. Two batters later, former University of Washington outfielder Todd Linden singled over third baseman Hunter Brown's head to score Shabala.

That was it as far as runs went for Fresno off the flame-throwing right-hander. From that point on, young Felix was in control.

"He could have easily gotten out of the game with a no-decision," said Rainiers manager Dan Rohn. "He gave us a chance to win the ballgame and instead he lost. He worked really well today and I thought he pitched outstanding."

Hernandez challenged hitters with his mid 90s fastball in the first inning, but was hardly limited to the heater, which he calls his best pitch by far. The birthday boy went to his curveball more often after the opening inning, then later started mixing in his plus changeup.

"I think he's learning that you can't throw it 95, 96, 97 and get it by guys anymore," said Rohn. "The way he went to his changeup and went to his breaking ball, I was very pleased."

Unfazed by the loss on his record, Hernandez was all smiles after the game. Partially because it was his birthday, partially because he had a girlfriend to call, but mostly because he felt "very confident" in his first-career Triple-A start and showed exactly why the experts rate him so highly.

"If I pitch good and lose, it's just bad luck," Hernandez shrugged. "I had all my pitches working tonight.

"I saw the hitters jumping on my fastball so I went with my curveball. When I saw them jumping on my curve, I went to my changeup."

That ability to adjust to batters, along with the manner in which the Venezuelan displayed tremendous maturity on the mound, impressed Rohn more than anything else.

"I thought his composure on the mound was outstanding tonight," said the Rainiers' skipper. "I think the catcher had a lot do to with it and kept him under control, but I think he himself is learning what he needs to do to become a pitcher in the big leagues."

Tacoma (1-1) finished with seven hits, led by the two-hit days of Shin-soo Choo and Wiki Gonzalez, but never managed to push a run across for Hernandez.

The hits will come, eventually, but more performances like the one Hernandez had Friday, and the 19-year-old might not be there to see them. He'll be in Seattle.

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