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It's good to be the king

King Tutankhamen of Egypt enjoyed a peaceful, decade-long reign 3,300 years ago before his untimely death at age 19 -- through foul play or a joyride on his chariot, depending on which historical account you believe. He was immortalized in a Steve Martin hit song in the 1970s.

When King Felix Hernandez of Seattle arrived in the major leagues two years ago at 19, his reputation preceded him. Scouts gushed about his natural gifts in the pages of Baseball America, and he was anointed "King" by the USS Mariner Weblog, which opted to skip "Prince Felix" and go straight to the top of the royalty food chain.


An exhibit devoted to Tut, the boy king, is currently on display at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Seattle's budding monarch is demoralizing hitters throughout the American League. Hernandez is toying with lineups and generating the kind of nationwide charisma buzz we haven't seen since Dontrelle Willis burst on the scene in 2003.

How good is it to be the king? After a mere two starts, Hernandez has elicited comparisons to so many staff aces, it's a miracle he missed Lefty Grove and Charley "Old Hoss" Radbourn.

• In a 4-0 victory over Oakland on April 2, Hernandez became the first opening day pitcher since Bob Gibson of the 1967 St. Louis Cardinals to strike out at least 12 batters while throwing shutout ball.

• He joined Chief Bender, Bob Feller and Fernando Valenzuela as the fourth pitcher since 1900 to start and win an opener before his 21st birthday.

• With seven hitless innings against Boston in his second start, Hernandez turned in the longest no-hit bid by an opposing pitcher at Fenway since Mike Mussina came one out short of a perfect game in 2001.

Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz thinks Hernandez is a candidate for a Pedro Martinez/Roger Clemens-type career if he stays healthy, and writers have begun making references to Dwight Gooden -- the 1984, otherworldly version.


"It's scary in a lot of ways to think what he can become," said Mariners pitcher Miguel Batista. "That's what makes the whole journey more interesting. Can he be a Hispanic version of Nolan Ryan? Can we have something to feel proud of here in Seattle for years to come?"

Seattle bench coach John McLaren even invoked Sandy Koufax's name after the Oakland game. A comparison of that magnitude might suck the breath right out of a kid, except that Hernandez has never heard of Koufax. He confirmed that during an interview in Boston last week.

Hernandez's precociousness, big smile and bigger arm make him a welcome treat for a Seattle franchise that could use a jolt of non-Ichiro-related excitement. Over the past week, the Mariners have sold about 2,000 extra tickets for his start Wednesday night against Minnesota at Safeco Field.

"If I'm a fan and I'm going to arrange my work schedule one week to catch a game, I'm going to make sure I see him pitch," said Bill Bavasi, Seattle's general manager. "But that's just me."

Showmanship is easy to recognize when it smacks you in the face. While 20 million fans in Japan tuned in for the Daisuke Matsuzaka-Ichiro matchup last week, Hernandez rewrote the script with a complete-game one-hitter in a 3-0 Seattle victory. Afterward, Boston's Kevin Youkilis marveled at the "ridiculous" late movement on his pitches, and Ortiz expressed admiration for his businesslike demeanor and the way he knows he's going to beat you. No brag. Just fact.

Hernandez mixes 97 mph fastballs with knee-buckling curves, tight sliders and baffling changeups. He alters eye levels, keeps the ball at the knees or below and works the inner and outer halves of the plate. Since Matsuzaka was merely good in their head-to-head competition, he looked very ordinary in comparison.

"I can't believe people are comparing these two guys," said Seattle outfielder Jose Guillen. "To me, there is no comparison. I'd take Felix 100 out of 100 times."

Growing pains
Even last year, when Hernandez's 12-14 record and 4.52 ERA classified him as a disappointment, he finished with 176 strikeouts and only 60 walks. But his performance still paled in comparison to what Justin Verlander, Francisco Liriano, Jered Weaver and Jonathan Papelbon were doing as rookies.

In some ways, Hernandez fell victim to the instant gratification syndrome that plagues so many prospects in an age of hype and incessant media coverage. Just two years ago, the same people who now worship Mets shortstop Jose Reyes were calling him an injury-plagued stiff who would never make it. Remember how the Mets painstakingly worked with Reyes to alter his stride as an antidote to his hamstring woes?

Hernandez, similarly, was projected as a world beater at 20. What riles Bavasi is the notion that Hernandez struggled because he put it on cruise control, or lacked dedication, or ate his way to mediocrity. He never had time for growing pains.

"The kid was 19 years old and he'd spent his whole, short career blowing people away in that kind of shape," Bavasi said. "So he got a surprise. He got a wake-up, and he figured it out on his own.

"What bothered me is, too many people painted him as lazy, not focused and not prepared. Since I've been here, he's been superbly focused and driven. He's been the perfect player development kid from day one."

King of the hill
The maturation process began in earnest last season, when Hernandez dug himself out of a hole after a rough April and May. And it continued over the winter, when he went home to his native Venezuela and dropped 20 pounds through a combination of sweat and a more sensible diet. The weight loss, according to Seattle pitching coach Rafael Chaves, has made a noticeable difference.

"He's more free to throw the ball out front now," Chaves said. "He's not fighting himself."

Hernandez is pounding the strike zone and working more efficiently so far this season. After throwing 16.1 pitches per inning in 2006, he's averaged 13.0 in his first two starts. Against Oakland, he threw 20 of 29 first-pitch strikes. Against Boston, he was 18-of-29. When Hernandez has a hitter down 0-1 and he can choose from his smorgasbord of despair, it's simply no contest.

Hernandez is also threatening to render his outfielders irrelevant. He has a ground ball to fly ball ratio of 7.50, better than even Brandon Webb's. Given that the Mariners have steel-trap bookends on the left side in third baseman Adrian Beltre and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, that sure seems like a plan.

Seattle management has taken pains to ease Hernandez's transition from phenom to manhood. The Mariners monitored his pitch counts and innings last season, and prevailed upon him to refrain from playing winter ball in Venezuela the past two years. Manager Mike Hargrove limited Hernandez to 191 innings and 3,067 total pitches last year (25th most among AL starters), but is likely to take a less stringent approach this season.

Hernandez has a strong support staff around him. Rick Griffin, one of baseball's most diligent trainers, is around to whisper encouragement in his ear on days when he needs a little push. Chaves, Seattle's pitching coach, worked with Hernandez in Triple-A Tacoma in 2004. And when the Mariners signed Batista as a free agent, they liked the idea of a veteran, professional Hispanic pitcher providing guidance to the staff prodigy.

But Hernandez is so mature, bright and grounded at 21, Seattle's general manager now wonders if it's all just overkill.

"At the end of the day, he probably needed nothing," Bavasi said.

Last year the Mariners assigned Hernandez an interpreter to serve as a buffer and a security blanket in interviews. Now Hernandez is confident enough in his English to go it alone. He'll even engage in a little banter.

When a reporter asked if he watched the highlights of his one-hitter against Boston, Hernandez replied, "For what? I know what happened."

Some Hispanic players learn to acclimate by taking English classes, and others tune in faithfully to soap operas. Not King Felix.

"I watch a lot of movies," Hernandez said.

He might want to check out "The Natural." If the spikes fit …

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.