Daisuke Matsuzaka turned out to be the second-best international pitching sensation on display at Fenway last evening.
For weeks and weeks and weeks, it was Dice-K, Dice-K, Dice-K, and when it wasn't that, it was Dice-K/Ichiro, Dice-K/Ichiro, Dice-K/Ichiro. You'd have thought the Red Sox would be batting against an Iron Mike or something.
As far as the average Red Sox fan was concerned, Felix Hernandez wasn't just flying under the radar, he was crawling in a tunnel.
"Flying under the radar?" said Terry Francona before the game. "Not for me. He has some of the most explosive stuff in the game."
One game after battering the rusty Seattle Mariners for 14 hits and 14 runs, the Red Sox could do next to nothing against the young pitcher many in baseball consider the Next Great Thing. No, really. Hernandez threw a one-hitter as the Mariners defeated Matsuzaka and the Sox, 3-0, before a mammoth Fenway gathering of 36,630.
"I was banking on it," declared Seattle skipper Mike Hargrove. "I was thinking about it all day long. All that stuff about Ichiro and Matsuzaka, which I understand, but I really wasn't going to be surprised if Felix stole the show."
Here is the early-season body of work:
17 innings pitched, 4 hits, 0 runs, 0 earned runs, 5 walks and 18 strikeouts.
His ERA, for the mathematically challenged, is 0.00.
The Oakland A's were victimized first. Hernandez put them in an Opening Day torture chamber, allowing three hits and no runs while striking out 12 in eight innings. The best starting pitching performance of the early season? Without doubt. Until last night's, that is.
Hernandez was the first Opening Day starter to fan 12 without allowing a run since Bob Gibson in 1967. And Hernandez was only the fourth pitcher since 1900 under the age of 21 to start and win an Opening Day game, the others being Chief Bender (1905), Bob Feller (1939), and Fernando Valenzuela (1981). Hang on, I've got one more for you. In the last 15 years, only two pitchers under the age of 21 have thrown a complete-game shutout. The first was Kerry Wood. The second was Hernandez, who shut out the Angels on five hits last Aug. 28 in a tidy 1 hour 51 minutes, the shortest game in Safeco Field history.
"His stuff's as good as anyone's that I've ever seen," maintained Hargrove.
If his first start of the '07 season was sensational, what do we call last night's? Sublime?
Hernandez, who turned 21 Sunday, is an imposing figure on the mound at 6 feet 3 inches and a listed 230 pounds. "I think he's lost some of that baby-soft fat he used to have," Hargrove said. "That's good to see."
No one had to tell the Mariners that as exciting a thought as having a really young prospect may be, the sad reality is that few pitchers who have reached the big leagues before they turn 21 ever go on to have long, successful major league careers. Hall of Famer Feller is the best of them, but once you get beyond Rapid Robert and Bender, you don't need much more than one hand to tally up the others. You can say, "Doc Gooden," but he fell far short of the early promise of a phenomenal career start at ages 19 and 20, when he went 41-13 with 544 strikeouts.
Perhaps it had something to do with the 494 2/3 innings he pitched in those first two seasons.
Hernandez will not have Gooden numbers. He broke into the bigs in 2005 by going 4-4 with a 2.67 ERA in 84 1/3 innings. Last season, he was 12-14, 4.52 in 191 innings. The uneducated might say, "What's the fuss?"
Here's the fuss:
"He was in a big-league rotation at the age of 20, which says a lot," offered Hargrove. "That tells you about his stuff and about his makeup."
Now, about that stuff . . .
"He has a four-seamer, a two-seamer, a curveball, a slider, and a changeup," Hargrove reported. "And they're all major league out pitches. He throws the two-seamer between 92 and 94 [miles per hour], and he throws the four-seamer between 95 and 96. And he does it all with command. That's pretty good."
Now, with that kind of stuff, why was he only 12-14 last year? The answers are a) the Mariners weren't particularly good, and b) having stuff is one thing and learning how to pitch at the major league level is another. That's where the youth part comes in. As I recall, Gooden was uncommonly aware for his age. Hernandez is not yet at that level.
But he's getting there.
"He's starting to understand how to get major league hitters out," Hargrove explained. "I don't care how hard you throw, the good hitters will catch up with you if that's all you're doing. He's making progress."
"He's got unbelievable potential," confirmed Seattle bullpen coach Jim Slaton. "I don't know that I've ever seen anyone that age with so much consistent movement on his pitches."
The Mariners have done their homework. They know how valuable Hernandez is and they know what overuse has done to young pitchers in the past. "We're trying to be careful with the kid," Hargrove promised. "Last year, we wanted to keep him to a combined 205 innings or so, including spring training; we came in around 206, 208. We're taking a close look at pitch counts and how he accumulates them."
There appears to be no end to Hernandez's virtues. Last year, he had a nice strikeout/walk split (176/60) and the third-best ground ball/fly ball ratio in the American League.
The Sox got their first taste of him last July 22. They only reached him for four hits and two runs over seven innings in a 5-2 Seattle victory.
There's pretty much nothing not to like. "He's not one of those guys who's always looking into the dugout," said Hargrove. "He's never looking to come out of the game and he's not looking for help."
Help was not an issue last night. Hernandez no-hit the Sox through seven, and there was barely a sniff of a base hit. J.D. Drew enabled the Sox to avoid the embarrassment of the first opposing no-hitter at Fenway since Jim Bunning's 1958 gem with a solid single up the middle on the kid's first pitch in the eighth, but that was it.
This was, of course, lesson 123,764,989 in Why You Play The Game. All the pregame hype was about Daisuke. But both the Fenway crowd and the ESPN audience had to come away impressed with Felix Hernandez.
"If they aren't," decided Hargrove, "they're deaf, dumb, and blind."
So that's Felix Hernandez. You haven't heard the last of him.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.