The King Beats the Champs

Among the things that the Seattle Mariners wanted their prized prospect, right-hander Felix Hernandez, to experience at Triple-A Tacoma in 2005 was taking the mound versus a legitimate, formidable batting lineup.

His first start of the season was against Fresno last Friday night, and after six fantastic innings, he'd still not been challenged by such an offense.

On Wednesday night, "King Felix" took the hill against the reigning Pacific Coast League Champion Sacramento Rivercats, a team full of patient, veteran hitters. The Rivercats are the Triple-A affiliate of the Oakland Athletics and closely follow the organization's philosophy for working the count to its fullest extreme.

The two-time defending league champs boast several experienced hitters with the PCL MVP, first baseman Dan Johnson, leading the way. Johnson hit .299 last season with 29 home runs and 111 RBI, while outfielder Matt Watson hit .305 with 19 home runs. The Rivercats plate patience has often frustrated starting pitchers and the team's 728 walks in 2004 is one reason why.

Rarely do Sacramento hitters reach outside the zone to offer at a pitch, and it's typical of their opponents to get deep into the bullpen due to high pitch counts and lots of base-runners.

Hernandez took on the Rivercats with vigor and aggression, attacking the strike zone with his mid-90's fastball, his unmatched curve and his change-up, an underrated pitch that the 19-year-old uses very effectively.

Hernandez pitched five scoreless innings, allowing five hits, while walking three and striking out five. The "King" relentlessly went right at Sacramento batters, mixing his two and four-seam fastballs and finishing them off with the curve ball.

The Venezuelan sensation threw 88 pitches, 53 for strikes, and was strong all night long.

The Mariners have a pitch limit on Hernandez early this season, aiming to keep the teenager from topping in the 80-85 pitch range. But after throwing 78 pitches through five frames, he took the mound to start the sixth inning.

After warming up for the inning, Hernandez caught the cleats of his right shoe in the grass during a pitch and the trainer was called to the mound – and the collective gasp of the entire organization sounded off like the finale of the Fourth of July Fireworks at Cheney Stadium.

The team's trainer, Rob Nodine, spent a few minutes looking at the foot and had Hernandez throw a few warmup tosses before manager Dan Rohn was convinced his ace could stay in the game.

But Felix may have been effected by the combination of a little bit of fatigue and a possible twist to the foot or ankle, as he promptly walked Johnson on four pitches and Cust on a 3-2 pitch.

Leading 2-0, the Venezuelan righty was still on the hook for the two baserunners, but right-hander Chris Buglovsky relieved Hernandez and got a pop out, a ground out and a strike out to end the threat and effectively secure the lead.

The test was to face a tough offensive force. The result was five shutout innings and five strikeouts – and a win, as the Rainiers scored four runs behind a 2-for-4 night by Shin-soo Choo that included his first Triple-A home run to lead off the fourth inning.

Every obstacle the Mariners have put in the way of the right-hander to this point has been knocked over like a bull running over a lead-footed matador.

How long can the Mariners hold back the King?

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