Nationals prepare to face Felix Hernandez for the first time

August 29, 2014

(AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)
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The three sections to the left of the right field foul pole at Safeco Field are reserved on days Felix Hernandez starts. The Mariners save those seats for the “King’s Court,” fans who purchase a ticket with the specific intent to cheer on the best right-handed pitcher in the world. They receive a yellow t-shirt and a yellow “K” placard, and they scream like crazy when Hernandez gives them occasions, which is always.

The Nationals have never faced the pitcher they call King Felix. That will change Friday night as they begin the West Coast portion of a nine-day road trip. The atmosphere at Safeco Field changes on days when Hernandez pitches, growing more rowdy and festive. The conditions in the batter’s box change, too, growing more difficult and dire.

In Los Angeles next week, the Nationals will face Clayton Kershaw, the runaway choice for National League Cy Young. Friday night, they’ll receive a test against the right-handed, American League version. Hernandez is 13-4 with a 2.07 ERA in 191 innings with 204 strikeouts and 34 walks. He allows fewer hits than any American League pitcher. At 28, he is an all-time great operating at the peak of his powers.

“Those types of guys, we can score some runs against,” Manager Matt Williams said. “That’s what it tells me. But we have to execute, too. Especially against pitchers like that, because they’re not going to give you many opportunities. If we take advantage of opportunity and we execute, then we have a chance, whoever is out there, to beat him.”

Fernandez has the ability to overwhelm hitters, but he thrives because he is an artist. He locates all of his pitches with his precision, and all of his pitches dart and cut with vicious movement. His low-to-mid-90s fastball tails in on a right-hander’s fists. His split-change drops like an anvil. He slider dives and curls with wicked bite. They all look the same when he releases them.

“He’s just aggressive,” Williams said. “He throws a good fastball in there. He’s throws a good change-up, split-change, slider. He’s a good pitcher. We’re going to have to do things right to beat him. That takes good pitching on our side, making sure we don’t give them extra outs and taking advantage of guys we get in scoring position. It’s the same with any pitcher. He’s special. He’s the best pitcher in the American League from what I’ve seen this year.”

The Nationals do not need to beat up Hernandez; they just need to beat him. The key may not be what the Nationals’ offense does, but how Jordan Zimmermann, the Nationals’ own elite right-handed pitcher, contains the Mariners. The Nationals have won all five of Zimmermann’s starts in August, a span in which he’s allowed eight earned runs in 34 2/3 innings. Seattle’s offense, dismal for much of the season, has come alive lately, scoring 4.8 runs per game behind Robinson Cano and third baseman Kyle Seager, one of the most underrated players in baseball.

Zimmermann should give the Nationals a chance. Still, when Williams talks about “those types of guys,” there’s a problem: There really are not any other guys like Felix Hernandez.

From May 18 through Aug. 11, Hernandez made 16 consecutive starts in which he pitched at least seven innings and yielded no more than two runs. Think about that: For three months, he single-handedly gave the Mariners a prime chance to win every five days. In 27 total starts this year, Fernandez has allowed more than three earned runs only once, to the Rays on May 12. They scored four in 6 2/3 innings in a game Hernandez won.

Only six Nationals have ever faced Hernandez in their career. In total, they are 7 for 55 (.127) with six walks, 18 strikeouts, no home runs and two doubles, good for a cool .382 OPS.

Of the combined 67 plate appearances against him, 54 have come from Denard Span and Asdrubal Cabrera. Span is 2 for 22 with a double, five walks and strikeouts. Cabrera is 3 for 20 with a double, one walk and five strikeouts.

Kevin Frandsen went 1 for 3 against him with an RBI, the best success of any current National. Adam LaRoche faced him once and went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts. Jose Lobaton is 0 for 2. Scott Hairston went 1 for 4.

They can tell you how miserable it is to face Hernandez. Those fans out in right field can tell you how much fun it is to watch him.

FROM THE POST

The Nationals can measure themselves over the next six games, James Wagner writes.

The Orioles are doing it with pitching, not power, Boz writes.

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NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Rochester 6, Syracuse 3: Emmanuel Burriss went 2 for 3 with two walks. Taylor Hill allowed four runs (two earned) in 6 1/3 innings on six hits and a walk, striking out two. The Chiefs magic number to clinch the North Division remained one. They can clinch a playoff spot with a victory tonight in Pawtucket.

Harrisburg 9, New Hampshire 3: Matt Skole went 3 for 4 with a double and a home run. Kevin Keyes went 1 for 5 with his 20th home run. Brian Dupra allowed three runs in five innings on seven hits and no walks, striking out two.

Wilmington 8, Potomac 0: Tony Renda went 3 for 4. Hector Silvestre allowed no runs in five innings on three hits and a walk, striking out four.

Asheville 4, Hagerstown 3: Rafael Bautista went 1 for 3 with a walk and stole his 67th base. Wilman Rodriguez went 2 for 3. Travis Ott allowed two runs in 4 1/3 innings on six hits and a walk, striking out four.

Batavia 3, Auburn 2: Dale Carey went 2 for 3. Jeff Gardner went 1 for 3 with a double. Anderson Martinez allowed three runs in six innings on seven hits and no walks, striking out three.

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.
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