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SEATTLE -- Much was made of last month's trade of Ichiro Suzuki from Seattle to New York, including suggestions that the Mariners had dealt away their heart.
Not so much, as it turned out. The man Seattle traded was the face of the Seattle franchise. The heart remains intact. His name is Felix Hernandez. And on a blue and brilliant Wednesday afternoon in the Pacific Northwest, the man his teammates call "Fifi" and the rest of the world knows as King Felix demonstrated both the grip he has on a baseball and the grip he has on Seattle.
|It's possible that Seattle ace Felix Hernandez won't have to wait too much longer to pitch in the postseason.|
Matched up with Tampa Bay, a surging team that had won seven of its last eight games, Hernandez was simply fabulous, turning in the 23rd perfect game in major league history, and the third this year behind those of the White Sox's Philip Humber and the Giants' Matt Cain.
Hernandez has been on a major surge for the last two months (7-0, 1.56 in his last 11 starts), and came into the game with the usual horde of fans in the left-field corner of Safeco Field, an area that is blocked out for the "King's Court" for each of Hernandez's Safeco starts. They wear yellow/gold T-shirts with "King's Court" on them and come equipped with placards bearing "K," standing both for strikeout and for the King.
And each of his teammates was wearing a "Capitan Fifi" T-shirt ("capitan" being Spanish for "captain") under his game jersey, the T-shirts a gift to the roster this week from assistant trainer Takayoshi Morimoto.
Hernandez defines the Mariners in 2012 in a way that Ichiro did a half-decade ago. He is The Man. A lifelong Mariner -- he signed with the club out of Venezuela in 2002 in large measure because his favorite major leaguer, fellow Venezuelan Freddy Garcia, was starring for the Mariners at the time -- he has a year-round home in the Seattle suburbs and has made it clear that he doesn't want to pitch anywhere else.
He has already won a Cy Young Award (2010), and now he has MLB's third perfect game of the season, the first in franchise history. What's next?
"What's next is the playoffs," Hernandez said.
There is always talk -- well-meaning suggestions, anyway -- that the Mariners should trade Hernandez because they aren't going to win this year and they could get plenty in exchange for him. But unlike Ichiro, who was 38 when the Mariners sent him to New York, Hernandez has scarcely scratched the surface.
He's just 26, but he is working on his seventh full season in the big leagues and has a contract that runs through 2014. To trade Hernandez would be to abandon the credo of getting better by getting younger.
Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik, taking the elevator down to the field level with some of the media, pulled out his cell phone and used it as a prop to say "No, we're not trading Felix." It was a funny bit, but it was a sincere one, too, because Hernandez is the man around whom Zduriencik must build the franchise.
|Points to the Moose: He got it one.|
That's fine with Felix, who is ever-quick to point out, "I want to be here."
It's equally fine with his teammates.
"He's one of the most humble stars in the game," Seattle shortstop Brendan Ryan said. "He has all that talent, but he's a blue-collar guy. It's easy for fans to relate to him. He's easy to pull for, for sure."
Center fielder Franklin Gutierrez has spent most of the season on the disabled list, but when he's around, he and Hernandez are the best of buddies. They are always talking ... except on Wednesday.
"It was different today," Gutierrez said. "I could feel it early on. I didn't say anything to him during the game. He is always so good, but today there was that little bit extra special.
"We all wanted this for him. He's such a good teammate. And he's a great pitcher."
Ryan made the game's best defensive play, catching a grounder that got by diving third baseman Kyle Seager in the seventh inning and throwing out B.J. Upton at first. It was going to be a tough play for Seager, but it was ordinary for Ryan, who has one of the best arms in the game and who had a much better angle on the ball.
"Once it got past Kyle, it was pretty routine," Ryan said. "The defense was good behind Felix, but he didn't need much."
The last out of the game came after Hernandez went to 2-0 on No. 9 hitter Sean Rodriguez. Catcher John Jaso called for a slider, a pitch that Hernandez uses but rarely. As were all his pitches Wednesday, this was a beauty. It got Hernandez back in the count, and he wound up catching Rodriguez looking at a called third strike to end the game.
He took a couple of steps off the mound and was swarmed by his teammates.
"I didn't know what to think," Hernandez said, "except that it was unbelievable."
The only downer of the day for Hernandez was that his wife and kids had just boarded a plane for a visit in Venezuela and weren't around to see perfection.
"I'm a loner," Hernandez said though a wide smile.
Yeah, maybe not so much. He'll never be alone while he's carrying the weight of a franchise on his right shoulder and arm.
John Hickey is a contributor to ESPN.com.