Thursday, April 12, 2007

Felix Hernandez: Stolen Stage King

A few days ago I described violinist Joshua Bell as being the Johan Santana of violin playing. Today, in trying to think of ways to explain Felix Hernandez, I realized that saying he's the Joshua Bell of pitching prodigies would not be that far off a description.

No, really. Did you see the game today?

The whole of Red Sox Nation was gearing up for the first home start from their $101 million acquisition, with various apparel and signs commemorating the occasion, most containing dice, and K's. The Japanese media was awaiting the first at-bat of the game, when Ichiro would dig into the batter's box against Matsuzaka. Thousands of people in Japan were undoubtedly glued to their TV sets for a game that started at 8am Thursday morning on their side of the world.

It was a typically Japanese at-bat, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. After getting off to a quick 0-2 count, Matsuzaka threw a bunch of breaking stuff and eventually ended up in a 3-2 full count before Ichiro hit a one-hopper back to the mound which Matsuzaka fielded easily.

And then thousands of Japanese people undoubtedly shut off their TVs and went back to sleep, or continued on their morning commutes, drifting away from the screens in the subway stations. The excitement was over. Except what they didn't realize was that the real excitement was about to begin.

I'm kidding, mostly. But the zeroes kept piling up in Boston's box, and aside from an awkward Youkilis at-bat where Felix seemed to be aiming at the cameras in the home plate dirt and issued a walk on four straight pitches, he was downright unhittable. Well, almost. Jose Lopez had been beyond amazing in the field, getting groundball after groundball, and finally after Dave Sims had said the words "no-hitter" on the air enough times, JD Drew led off the 8th inning by hitting a grounder that finally got through Jose Lopez for a single.

And that was it. Felix pitched a complete-game one-hit shutout on 111 pitches. The Red Sox batters didn't even make the ball leave the infield until Kevin Youkilis hit a line drive to left field in the 7th inning, which Raul Ibanez managed to make a great catch on.

The only thing that could have really made this game any better would have been if the Mariners had managed to actually score a run off Joel Pineiro, but alas.

The Mariners got 9 hits today. 6 of them were by guys named Jose. 2 were by a guy named Joh. Adrian Beltre hit the other one, and was later seen pretending to be one of the Double Play Twins.

The Red Sox got 1 hit today, and it was by JD Drew, who apparently extended his hitting streak to 12 games by doing so. Phillies fans everywhere were booing in spirit.

It was Jason Varitek's 35th birthday today, which the announcers brought up so often I was thinking it might need to be added to my theoretical Matsuzaka drinking game (for every time you hear the phrases "250 pitches", "Matsuzaka generation", "gyroball", "Matsuzaka-Ichiro showdown", etc).

Jeff, that bastard, was actually at Fenway for the game. He'll undoubtedly have a great recap of the game up tomorrow, assuming he hasn't died of happiness in the meantime. I'll edit that in when it surfaces.

In case you're curious, Nikkan Sports has a whole bunch of Matsuzaka stats in English here, where I confirmed my intuition that of all the Japanese batters in the major leagues likely to face Golden Boy, our Kenji Johjima indeed faced him the most, almost the most recently, and with the most success. (Though to be fair, I was mostly remembering Johjima hitting a huge home run off Matsuzaka in the PL playoffs in 2004 when I'd made that claim.)

Of course, that didn't stop Nikkan Sports, like several other papers, of making a big deal over the "Ichiro-Matsuzaka showdown". Torakichi on the japanesebaseball forums astutely and amusingly pointed out that There Are No Non-Japanese Players in the MLB!, at least as far as the Japanese papers are concerned. Even worse, their coverage is all like "Ichiro didn't get any hits off Matsuzaka! Oh... and by the way, Kenji Johjima happened to be 2-for-3 with a walk, and TWO DOUBLES OFF MATSUZAKA. But who cares?"

Oh, by the way, speaking of double play twins, Munenori Kawasaki broke his finger the other day in practice, and is pretty much going to be out for a month. Currently, the Hawks' middle infield is the confusingly-named Honma and Honda, who are both good-glove-weak-bat infielders who bat left-handed, and that's about where the similarities stop.

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