We don’t see these matchups as often you may expect, ace versus ace, best in the game versus best in the game. For the third time in their careers, Felix Hernandez faced Yu Darvish. The first two battles, both in 2012, went to King Felix: He allowed one run in eight innings and then pitched a three-hit, 12-strikeout gem, as Darvish struggled in both outings.
Let's follow along with a running diary of the Texas Rangers’ 3-2 victory over the Seattle Mariners.
You certainly have to expect a low-scoring game. Darvish hasn’t allowed a run in his first two starts and faces a Seattle lineup that has been shut out in three of its past six games. Hernandez has allowed six runs in his three starts with an impressive 30-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a perfect pitcher’s build, but if I could sculpt a pitcher out of Italian marble, he would look like Darvish -- tall and lean with a regal appearance, his uniform tailored perfectly. It’s a small data sample, but Darvish may be making one major change to his approach from last season, throwing more four-seam fastballs and fewer cutters. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Darvish threw 35 percent fastballs last year and 16 percent cutters. Through his first two starts, those numbers were 61 and 4. This makes sense; the cutter was his weakest pitch last year as opponents hit .271/.357/.500 against it. If he can command the four-seamer, he can ditch the cutter considering he still has his slider and curveball as wipeout pitches (plus an occasional splitter and even a big slow curve).
After a scoreless top of the inning, Hernandez takes the mound, top two buttons undone, pants legs down over the top of his shoelaces, his upper lip unshaven and a scraggly fluff of hair sprouting from his chin. Hernandez’s best weapon has been his changeup; batters are 2-for-27 against it with 18 strikeouts. It has been so good that he’s thrown it 28 percent of the time, up from 19 percent in 2013.
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Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal faced each other just four times, which seems odd to me. Marichal and Koufax were both starters from 1961 to 1966 and the Dodgers and Giants played each other 18 times a season back then, so you’d think they would have matched up more often. You’d maybe even expect the managers to purposely arrange their rotations for their aces to square off. Koufax pitched 26 times against the Giants over those six seasons and Marichal faced the Dodgers 30 times (remarkably, he never allowed more than four runs in those starts), so odds were they should have faced each other a few more times.
In the four games they did pitch against each other, Marichal didn’t even get an official plate appearance in two of them. Once, Koufax got knocked out in the first inning before Marichal hit. Another game -- the last time the two started against each other -- was Aug. 22, 1965, the infamous game when Marichal attacked Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro.
Koufax faced Bob Gibson five times, and they had some great duels. Twice, Koufax beat Gibson 1-0. He pitched a third shutout in another game.
Nick Franklin, just called up from Tacoma, lines a first-pitch cutter into right-center for a one-out triple. Darvish strikes out Justin Smoak on a 1-2 fastball out of the strike zone but then works carefully to Dustin Ackley, walking him to face the right-handed Mike Zunino. Darvish starts out with a 94-mph fastball that Zunino takes for a strike, but the 0-1 pitch is a hanging slider in the middle of the plate and Zunino lines a soft single to center. Right pitch, bad execution. Abraham Almonte then plates Ackley, lining a 1-1 fastball into left field to make it 2-0.
While Hernandez is sailing along through three innings (he started eight of the first nine batters with strikes), Darvish finds himself in a jam, thanks to some shaky defense. Justin Smoak singles past the statuesque Prince Fielder and then Zunino reaches when outfielders Leonys Martin and Shin-Soo Choo miscommunicate on a fly ball. Almonte strikes out. Brad Miller gets ahead in the count 2-1, Darvish gets a gift call on a 2-1 curve that looks outside and then appears to strike out Miller on a good heater on the inside corner. But plate ump Ted Barrett calls it a ball to the displeasure of Darvish. The 3-2 pitch is a slider that Miller sends routinely to right field.
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Roger Clemens reached the majors in 1984, Randy Johnson in 1988. They were both in the American League through 1998 and in the National League in 2004, but they faced each other only twice, in 1992 and 1994. Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez started just three times against each other, once in 1994 and twice in 1995, during Maddux’s apex. He tossed shutouts in two of those games.
According to research by RetroSheet researcher Tom Ruane, the two pitchers who faced off most often in their careers were Jim McCormick and Mickey Welch, who battled 40 times between 1880 and 1887. Since 1900, the most common matchup was between Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson and Three-Finger Brown, with 23. Brown’s Cubs beat Mathewson’s Giants 12 times to 11. Since World War II, it’s Warren Spahn and Bob Friend, with 21 games.
Two other Hall of Famers who pitched regularly against each other were Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton, with 17 duels between 1970 and 1983. And duel they did. On Sept. 24, 1972 -- the year Carlton went 27-10 with an awful Phillies team -- Seaver beat Carlton 2-1, the game decided in the eighth on an unearned run. On Opening Day 1973, Seaver won 3-0 with 7 2/3 scoreless innings. On Opening Day 1975, Seaver beat him 2-1, the winning scoring in the bottom of the ninth. In September of 1976, Seaver won 1-0 with a four-hit shutout.
If you’re getting the idea that Seaver had Carlton’s number, it’s kind of true. Or he had the Phillies’ number. The first nine times they faced each other, Seaver went 8-0 with a no-decision. Carlton always pitched well, but Seaver seemed to bring his best stuff. Carlton did finally beat him three times, but overall Seaver went 11-3 with a 2.74 ERA while Carlton went 3-12 with a 2.77 ERA (Seaver had two blow-up starts that raised his ERA). The last time they met was Opening Day 1983. Seaver had returned to the Mets after his exile to Cincinnati, where he had gone 5-13 with a 5.50 ERA in 1982. But the game was at Shea Stadium. Of course Seaver had to start. He tossed six scoreless innings. The Mets won 2-0.
Darvish has settled down after some early issues with baserunners but he also ran up his pitch count. Meanwhile, the King is dealing, with eight strikeouts and three hits through six. While Darvish has thrown 98 pitches through six, Felix is at 79 (55 for strikes).
If you want a good lesson on what makes Hernandez so good -- and especially so good early on this year -- is that he can throw all four of his pitches on any count. So what has Hernandez done Wednesday night? All eight of his strikeouts have come on fastballs, at least according to MLB.com -- five four-seamers and three two-seamers. The guy is amazing.
(The MLB GameDay system I’m checking could be misidentifying some of his changeups as two-seam sinkers -- you know, because who else throws a changeup that’s only a couple miles per hour slower than his fastball. Readers on Twitter say several of the strikeouts were changeups, which is probably the case. We'll see what the data says after the game.)
In what’s probably his final inning, Darvish cruises with a 1-2-3 frame, including his eighth strikeout. Solid effort for Darvish on a night he didn’t appear to have his A stuff. The one pitch he’d like to have back was that slider to Zunino.
Hernandez racks up his ninth strikeout, getting Kevin Kouzmanoff on another fastball, although at 88 mph it may have been another changeup.
Darvish is done, and so is Hernandez after giving up a leadoff triple to Martin. I’m a little surprised at the hook since Hernandez is only at 96 pitches and has kept the Rangers off-balance all night. Felix did not look too happy when Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon took the ball from him, that’s for sure. You know this is the kind of game he at least wants to get the ball into the hands of closer Fernando Rodney.
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In 1959, Lew Burdette and Robin Roberts faced off seven times, the last time two pitchers started that many times against each other in one season. Only one of them was much of a deal, Roberts winning 2-1 on July 4 as he scattered eight hits in a complete game. Another fun piece of data from Tom Ruane: Babe Ruth faced Walter Johnson five times in 1916. There were just 18 runs scored in those five games. How would you like to find a time machine and go watch one those matchups?
Stop reading, Mariners fans. Rodney on for the save. Two quick outs. Kouzmanoff with a grounder to Miller's left that he dives for but can't corral it. He was shaded way in the hole and had a long ways to go, so it was not an easy play. Rodney falls behind Mitch Moreland with two balls, sending McClendon out to the mound (probably telling him to be careful with Moreland since light-hitting Josh Wilson is on deck). Moreland walks on a 3-2 pitch. Donnie Murphy bats for Wilson and hits a routine grounder right to Miller, who tosses the ball high to Robinson Cano at second base, pulling him off the bag. Everybody safe. Wild pitch. Game tied. Martin with a soft single to left. Game over.
What can I say? In what should have been a final sentence exclaiming the brilliance of Felix Hernandez we're instead left saying poor Felix.