By TIM BOOTH, Associated Press
SEATTLE (AP) — His arms outstretched to the sky, about to be swallowed by anxious teammates who ignored him for most of nine innings, Felix Hernandez had finally done it.
Ever since his major league debut as a baby-faced 19-year-old with wild curly hair and a hat that never sat straight, he had chased perfection.
Now King Felix had his crowning achievement. No hits, no runs, nobody allowed on base.
"It was always in my mind, every game. 'I need to throw a perfect game.' For every pitcher, I think it's in their mind," Hernandez said. "Today it happened and it's something special. I don't have any words to explain this. This is pretty amazing. It doesn't happen every day."
Hernandez pitched the Seattle Mariners' first perfect game and the 23rd in baseball history, overpowering the Tampa Bay Rays in a brilliant 1-0 victory Wednesday.
The 2010 AL Cy Young Award winner has never hid his desire for pitching perfection. For a franchise on its way to an 11th straight season without a playoff appearance, Hernandez is the one constant keeping fans interested in Mariners baseball.
He's revered in the Pacific Northwest, not only for his performance on the mound, but for his willingness to stay. When he could have waited and sought a bigger payday elsewhere, Hernandez signed an extension in 2010 that will keep him in Seattle through the 2014 season.
So when the "King's Court" of yellow-shirted fans in the left-field corner began chanting "Let's Go Felix!" to start the eighth inning, it spread through the entire stadium. The crescendo of screams and yells finally reached its pinnacle at 3:02 p.m. PDT when Hernandez threw a called third strike past Sean Rodriguez to ignite the celebration.
Riding down in a crowded elevator after the game, Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik jokingly held his cellphone to his ear and said "no, we're not trading Felix."
"It almost seems like a matter of time before this happens," Seattle catcher John Jaso said. "A little dribbler here or something it's ruined, but his competitive attitude and competitive mind he brings out to the mound each time he pitches, you know you have a guy out there who is going to give you a chance to win."
It was the third perfect game in baseball this season — a first — joining gems by Chicago's Philip Humber against the Mariners in April and San Francisco's Matt Cain versus Houston in June. More than half of all perfectos — 12 — have come in the last 25 seasons.
This also was the sixth no-hitter in the majors this season, three of them at Safeco Field. Humber threw his gem in Seattle, then six Mariners pitchers combined to hold the Los Angeles Dodgers hitless at the park on June 8. There have been seven no-hitters in a season twice since 1900. It happened in 1990 and again in 1991, with Nolan Ryan throwing two in those days.
For the Rays, it was an all-too-familiar feeling. This was the third time in four seasons they had a perfect game pitched against them, following efforts by Dallas Braden in 2010 and Mark Buehrle in 2009.
"The one thing I've learned is that no-hitters and perfect games don't mean anything about tomorrow, anyway," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
Hernandez's dominance got stronger as the game progressed. He cruised for five innings, then pitched through tough at-bats, delay tactics and the mounting pressure of perfection to close out the gem. Hernandez struck out 12, including but eight in the final four innings. He struck out the side in the sixth, did it again in the eighth and hit as high as 95 mph in the ninth.
Two starts earlier against the New York Yankees, Hernandez tossed a two-hit shutout, leading Seattle manager Eric Wedge to call it the finest outing he's seen from Hernandez. Suffice to say, Wednesday was better.
"It was special. He had special stuff," Wedge said. "But Felix is so consistently good that when he does take it up to another level which we've seen him do through the course of the year, you never know how it's going to turn out."
Desmond Jennings pinch hit for Jose Lobaton to open the ninth. Hernandez got ahead 1-2 before Jennings fouled off two straight and Hernandez fanned him on a 92 mph fastball down in the zone. Jeff Keppinger batted for Elliot Johnson and grounded out to shortstop on a 1-2 pitch.