When King Felix Ruled Tacoma

Felix Hernandez became the second former Tacoma pitcher to ever win a Cy Young Award when he was announced as the American League winner earlier today.

Felix joins Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry as the only two players to pitch for Tacoma on their way to the majors, and then win a Cy Young.*

Two other pitchers won the Cy Young award first, and then pitched for Tacoma later: Mike McCormick won the award for San Francisco in 1967, and then tried to revive his career with the Tacoma Twins in 1973. Cliff Lee won the award in 2008, and then had the one injury rehabilitation start for Tacoma in 2010.

Perry pitched for the Tacoma Giants from 1960 to 1963, and then he won two Cy Youngs – one with the Cleveland Indians in 1972, and another with the San Diego Padres in 1978.

Felix was with Tacoma in 2005, and he was the highlight of the Rainiers roster – he was the young phenom, he had a lot of hype, and he had overpowering stuff. Everybody looked forward to his starts that year – and he had six of them at home. Let’s go back in time five years…

Hernandez made the Rainiers opening day roster, but Tacoma fans didn’t get a look at Felix for a while – four of his first five starts were on the road.

He made his Triple-A debut on his 19th birthday, working six innings without allowing an earned run but taking a 3-0 loss in Fresno on April 8.

Felix made his Cheney Stadium debut on April 19 and lost to Sacramento, allowing three runs over six innings, but striking out eight. Dan Johnson hit a two-run double off him in the first inning, giving Felix an ERA for the first time – he had tossed 11 innings without allowing an earned run in his first two starts, both on the road. The attendance was 3,328 – an excellent total at the time for a Tuesday night game in April.

Felix won two more road starts before making his second home start on May 6, against Salt Lake. This was kind of a confounding outing – Felix allowed just two hits in seven innings, but they both were home runs. Jeff Mathis took him deep after a Curtis Pride walk, and Adam Pavkovich (remember him?) hit a solo shot later. Still, Felix picked up the win, improving to 4-2, 2.75. There was a very nice crowd on a clear day – 6,191.

The Rainiers hit the road again, and I got to see my first real Felix Hernandez masterpiece. It came on May 12 in Round Rock, and the Express had future Orioles slugger Luke Scott hitting third, and former Rainier and Mariner Charles Gipson in the leadoff spot. Felix dominated for seven shutout innings, giving up just two hits and one walk while striking out eight. He whiffed Scott twice. Masao Kida and George Sherrill finished off the combined 3-0 shutout. 

The road trip continued, and Felix got Albuquerqued in his worst Triple-A start – knocked out during a laborious five-run second inning; I remember staying up late into the night in the lobby of the dreaded MCM Elegante, listening in while Dan Rohn and Rafael Chaves dissected this game.

The Rainiers came home and nobody showed up for Felix’s third Cheney Stadium start – well, only you diehards did. The 2,111 of you who attended on May 23 got to see Felix’s best Triple-A start: seven scoreless innings against Memphis, nine strikeouts, just four hits allowed. Jeff Heaverlo and Sherrill finished off a 4-0 shutout. Felix was now 6-3, 2.63.

Felix then made two more road starts, at Fresno and Sacramento, and he was wild in both of them – walking eight batters in 11 innings – but nobody was hitting him hard, he allowed only seven hits total in the two games. This prompted more late nights with Rohny and Chavy. Their discussions became heated: was Felix ready? What can he improve? Will he throw strikes in the majors? Should we tell Hargrove he’s ready? Can we really send up this child – he’s only 19!

The kid didn’t answer any questions with his next outing – a home start on June 9, against Las Vegas. Felix walked five batters in 5.1 innings – but he struck out eight, gave up just five hits, and didn’t allow a run. Chris Buglovsky, Sean Green, and Kida polished off another Felix-started shutout.

Five days later, Felix tossed six scoreless innings at Cheney Stadium against Portland, striking out seven but walking four. Only three hits were allowed this time – and Green and Kida closed out yet another combined shutout. Felix was 8-4 with a 2.32 ERA and the youngest player in Triple-A baseball.

Three days later, throwing a standard between-starts bullpen session, Felix said he was a little stiff. The Mariners immediately shut him down for a month. The M’s had been trying to slow him down all season, often starting him on five days rest, trying to decrease injury risk. I think the organization wanted him to take a month off and was looking for any reason to do it – Felix wasn’t happy about it.

Hernandez returned in a relief role on July 10 in Tucson, pitching one inning. The team wanted him to rebuild arm strength out of the bullpen.

Felix had four more relief outings, all at home, in late July before returning to the rotation with a July 30 start against Omaha in front of 7,521 fans on a gorgeous, 86-degree Saturday evening in Tacoma. In what turned out to be Felix’s final minor league start, he tossed four no-hit innings, striking out seven and walking two.

Felix’s next start was in the major leagues, and now here we are five years later, and King Felix has a Cy Young Award. Congratulations, Felix – it was fun watching you on your way to the big leagues.

Now for the links:

  • Here is an early story on Felix’s award win, with reaction, from Kirby Arnold.
  • Geoff Baker posted a nice summary of the Cy Young award voting details.
  • The Mariners announced the signing of two minor league free agents late yesterday: infielder Sean Kazmar, and relief pitcher Justin Miller. Kazmar, 26, plays SS and 2B, he hit .275 with eight home runs and 53 RBI for Portland last year, and he will likely be on Tacoma’s opening day roster. Miller is a 33-year-old right-handed reliever who split his time between Albuquerque and the Dodgers last year. Miller has quite a bit of major league experience and may have a decent chance to make the Mariners roster in spring training – if not, we’ll happily take him.
  • Additionally, I have learned that the Mariners have either signed, or are very close to signing, two of their own minor league free agents: outfielder Mike Wilson, and pitcher Yusmeiro Petit.
  • Larry Stone says that the Hot Stove League is heating up earlier than usual.
  • Normally this would be the lead item – Tony DeFrancesco, the winningest active Triple-A manager, has left Sacramento and will manage the Houston Astros affiliate in Oklahoma City. Tony D won three PCL championships in seven years as Sacramento manager.
  • Padres officials toured the facility in Tucson. In this story, we learn that Tucson will play “four games in July” in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. The Rainiers have a July series in Tucson. Uh-oh…

Big week here in the Curto household, as we gear up for the rivalry game. Did you know that for decades – and perhaps still to this day, I’m not sure – John Elway refused to talk about this game? “Only a miracle can save the Bears now…”

*Former Tacoma Giant Juan Marichal never won a Cy Young award. There was only one award for both leagues until 1967, and he was always up against Koufax and Gibson.

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8 Responses to When King Felix Ruled Tacoma

  1. Pete L. says:

    “…before returning to the rotation with a July 30 start against Omaha in front of 7,521 fans on a gorgeous, 86-degree Saturday evening in Tacoma. In what turned out to be Felix’s final minor league start, he tossed four no-hit innings, striking out seven and walking two.”

    I remember that game well. There was quite a bit of anticipation – anticlimactic, really – that Felix would be called up within days. My son, who was nine at the time, made friends with a Spanish-speaking young boy who would engage Felix on the dugout steps after he came out, and both boys got signed game balls from Felix (cool, too, because if I recall correctly, that year was the 100-year PCL commemorative ball) – a definite highlight for the little guy.

  2. stan says:

    Not sure which of those starts I attended, but I remember seeing Felix pitch at Cheney Stadium. Two guys that I remember seeing pitch in Tacoma who I thought were destined for stardom never made it: Ryan Anderson and Scott Champarino. Congratulations to a fellow who certainly did make it; Felix deserved the award.

    • Mike Curto says:

      I actually thought that on his best days, Ryan Anderson was more dominant than Felix was on his best days. He had three shoulder surgeries and was unable to come back. Pitchers and injuries – they almost always go together.

  3. Steve Klauke says:

    Whew! We go to Tucson in April and May.

  4. Michael says:

    Phillis signed former Mariners/rainer Ryan Feirebend to minor league contact with invite to ST.

  5. marc w says:

    I bet Dan Meyer tells his grandkids about the time he beat Felix. I think I was at 3 or 4 of Felix’s home starts. Definitely remember the May game against SL – the guy sitting in front of me was convinced Felix was a no-talent hype-job after the 2nd HR left the yard. And of course, that was the game Choo cleared the CF wall, which gives you some indication of how hard the wind was blowing out.

    The road game I remember the most was the game at Fresno – he faced off against the Giants youngster Matt Cain. I scored that game on my dining room table while listening to you call it.

    I loved watching the scouts when Felix pitched – I’ve never seen anything else like it at Cheney. They’d audibly gasp and/or chuckle when Felix threw his curveball.

  6. Jason S. says:

    Thanks for detailed retelling of Felix’s AAA history. I was at a few of those games – and I remember the jaw-dropping sound of his fastballs hitting the leather. . .but watching his AAA start at spring training last year might have been the most fun AAA memory of them all. Great work as usual. . .

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