SEATTLE — Felix Hernandez wasn’t the only one with mounting pressure Wednesday afternoon at Safeco Field as he progressed toward baseball immortality.
The fielders behind him were a part of it, too. Any miscue, and perfection would be lost.
“That was the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life on the baseball field,” said first baseman Justin Smoak.
The mindset of left fielder Trayvon Robinson was echoed around the diamond.
“I was going to go through a wall for him,” Robinson said. “I’d jump in the stands. I was going to sacrifice some limbs.”
But Hernandez was in such complete control, his dominance so overwhelming, that no heroics were necessary to preserve his masterpiece against the Tampa Bay Rays. Hernandez struck out eight of the last 12 batters to end the 23rd perfect game in major-league history in appropriate style.
The Mariners won 1-0, scoring the only run in the third inning when Brendan Ryan, on first base with two outs, stole second, moved to third when the pitch was wild, and came home on Jesus Montero’s single.
Montero, the designated hitter, then watched from the dugout as the drama unfolded.
“I was praying with Guti (Franklin Gutierrez) in the dugout, saying, ‘Come on, you can do it,’” Montero said. “And FiFi (one of Hernandez’s nicknames) did it. I’m never going to forget this moment. It’s special for everyone.”
Perhaps the hardest-hit ball all day was by the Rays’ leadoff hitter, Sam Fuld, a fourth-inning drive to right-center that Seattle right fielder Eric Thames grabbed on the run near the warning track.
“I saw it hit, got on my horse, and went off and caught it,” he said.
Thames then joked that he thought to himself, “Well, the perfect game’s still intact.” The notion crossed Hernandez’s mind in about the third inning.
“I thought to myself, ‘Something is going on right now,’ “ he said.
Afterward, Rays hitters vouched for the Hernandez’s dominance. It was the third perfect game thrown against the Rays since 2009, but Tampa Bay manager Joe Madden said Hernandez, who notched 12 strikeouts, was more overpowering than either Mark Buehrle or Dallas Braden.
“The stuff was on par with anything I’ve ever seen,” said Rays All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria. “He was able to just make pitches in any count. It seemed like every pitch you thought he was going to throw at a certain point, or you guess a pitch, it was the other pitch.”
For Ackley, it was the reaction of Rays hitters that clued him into the fact that Hernandez — who had already thrown three shutouts this year, including a two-hitter, a three-hitter and a five-hitter — was above and beyond on this day.
“When you see Longoria swinging at balls in the dirt,” Ackley said, “you know something has to be going on.”
Carlos Pena of the Rays marveled as well.”The curveball was breaking to the point you see a ball chest-high and you think that’s a strike, and the next thing you know, it’s just off the ground,” Pena said. “How can he make that ball break that much?”
It’s a question that Mariners catcher John Jaso was pondering as well, as he kept calling for breaking pitches, along with occasional fastballs that peaked at 96 mph.
“You could have thrown any lineup out there today, and you’d be getting close to the same results today,” Jaso said.
In the ninth, Hernandez struck out pinch-hitter Desmond Jennings, then got another pinch-hitter, Jeff Keppinger, to ground out to Ryan. Hernandez fell behind 2-0 to Rodriguez, raising the tension level.
But three pitches later, Rodriguez watched a devastating changeup drop in for called strike three, and the perfecto was history. The crowd of 21,889 roared as Hernandez was mobbed.
“I think they deserve it,” Hernandez said. “And I deserve it, too. It’s unbelievable.”