A Duel at Safeco Field

It's Randy Johnson vs. Felix Hernandez!

Let's say we told you that this week Safeco Field featured the four greatest pitchers in Seattle Mariners history. Your obvious response: "Didn't know Gaylord Perry was back in baseball." OK, so make it four of the best five:

• Jamie Moyer, the team's all-time wins leader, who helped make the league-best Chicago White Sox look, for one game anyway, like the Sheboygan Sad Sacks, baffling the South Siders 9-2 on Sunday, Aug. 28.

• White Sox right-hander Freddy Garcia, former M's staff ace and all-star, who that same day seemed to have added a pitch to his repertoire, something low and outside and often consistent with the technical term "wild pitch."

• Randy Johnson, who left the M's in 1998 and is certain to enter the Hall of Fame (probably as an Arizona Diamondback) and was to return Wednesday, Aug. 31, to lead the New York Yankees in the marquee Safeco game of the past three seasons.

• And Felix Hernandez, whose epic, 36-inning big-league career already has some comparing the 19-year-old Venezuelan right-hander with ghosts of Cooperstown. Hernandez's Wednesday start is half of what makes that Yankees game marquee. Team officials, fans, and scribes have saddled the strikeout artist with rainbow-high hopes and expectations. And if he doesn't pan out, hey, we've still got Ryan Franklin.

But "panning out" is scarcely in question. I already see in the poorly nicknamed King Felix (I prefer "Felix Navidad," because he brought an early Christmas to this pitching-poor franchise) signs of a dominating starter. The way he carries himself on and off the mound—the confident saunter to the dugout after an 86 mph breaking-ball third strike—reminds me of the Dave Stewart who won 84 games during an astonishing four-year run with the A's.

Is Felix really great yet? It sure looked like it early against Chicago Friday, Aug. 26, when a want-to-believe crowd showed up at Safeco to watch him put up monotonous 96, 97, and 98 mph counts on the radar gun. But for a couple of improbable long balls from a guy who had never gotten it to the warning track, Hernandez might have had a third win against one loss. As it was, the home runs helped run his ERA all the way up to 1.75. If he does that for one full season (and even optimists don't expect such a feat), then forget Dave Stewart. We're talking Bob Gibson.

For now, it should suffice that the M's at least can trot out a watchable product every fifth game. Yes, Yuniesky Betancourt is a joy to watch in the infield. Yeah, we like it that Richie Sexson might hit 40 out and Adrian Beltre is getting better. But it's a night such as the Hernandez-Johnson match that makes us fortunate to be in a baseball town. Or what used to be a baseball town. As of the Moyer-Garcia duel, some 9,000 tickets remained for the Wednesday game. If the M's can't sell out this one, it might mean a Kingdome-vintage crowd next April 8 for "Felix Turns 20" night.

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