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October 2, 2012 at 10:33 AM

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Despite poor finish, Felix Hernandez broke new ground this season

Photo credit: Mark Harrison/The Seattle Times

So the Felix Hernandez party ended with an expensive vase shattering and the cops knocking on the door.

It was a rough, abrupt ending, but you'll remember the fun for a long time.

Despite falling apart over the past five weeks, despite closing with an 0-4 record and 6.62 ERA in his final six starts, Hernandez provided enough thrills during the summer to be remembered more for the highs than the lows in 2012. His 12-strikeout perfect game -- the first in Mariners' history -- against Tampa Bay on Aug. 15 was the highlight of the season and one of the greatest individual feats in Seattle sports history.

Hernandez went from beloved to the undisputed King of sports in this city. Who will ever forget a crowd of 39,204 mostly yellow-clad, placard-waving fans coming to Safeco Field to celebrate King Felix on Aug. 21, the start after his perfecto?

From June 17 to Aug. 27, Hernandez went 9-0 over 14 starts with a 1.40 ERA. The Mariners won 11 of those 14 starts. Hernandez threw five shutouts during that span, four of which came in 1-0 games with no margin for error. That stretch, a representation of 42 percent of his 33 starts, helps temper what turned out to be, by Hernandez's standard, an inconsistent year.

He had a month-long swoon early in the year, from May 11 to June 12, in which he went 1-4 with a 6.37 ERA in six starts. And we already mentioned his six-start conclusion, ending with allowing seven runs and 12 hits over 5 1/3 innings to the Los Angeles Angels on Monday night.

"It's not the way to end the season," Hernandez admitted after the game, and you can click here to read Larry Stone's game story.

For the season, Hernandez was 13-9 with a 3.06 ERA. He struck out 223 batters in 232 innings. He led the majors with five shutouts. He ranks in the top 10 in the American League in 11 pitching categories. Overall, it was another fine season. But after he soared to the top of the Cy Young Award race on Aug. 27 (he led the majors at the time with a 2.43 ERA), you expected a spectacular conclusion. You had to settle for, "It was good while it lasted."

Hernandez assessed his season this way: "It was fine. It was OK. I need to get better. That's it."

Should you be concerned that Hernandez didn't win a game after Aug. 27 and got shelled in three of those starts? Sure. But it must take a lot out of a pitcher to have to win so many 1-0 games. He appears healthy even though his performance declined, and if he's healthy, there's little to fear with Hernandez.

The epitaph on Hernandez's 2012 season should read something like this: He officially became the face of the franchise, and he took on the responsibility with a class and grace that endeared him to even more fans.

Hernandez has been the Mariners' best player for quite a while. But after Ichiro was traded to the New York Yankees on July 23, he officially became the primo Mariner. And right after that trade, Hernandez went 5-0 with a 1.45 ERA over his next seven starts. The Mariners had a 6-1 record in those starts. Opponents could only hit .149 against him. He gave up just 28 hits in 56 innings. Reee-diculous.

Seeing the Mariners wearing T-shirts that read "CAPITAN FIFI" after Hernandez's perfect game stands out as a defining moment this season. Here's what I wrote in a perfect game follow-up column about those T-shirts:

The Mariners wore their affinity for Hernandez in the clubhouse after the game Wednesday. They donned T-shirts that spoofed the Captain Morgan rum logo, complete with a cartoony captain who resembled King Felix standing with one leg on a baseball instead of a barrel of liquor.

"CAPITAN FIFI," the T-shirts read.

It was a nod to the Venezuelan's Spanish language, as well as a reference to Hernandez's alternate nickname -- FiFi.

"You're kind of fighting back tears at the close of the game there," Ryan said. "He's the face of our franchise. He's the CAPITAN!"

Hernandez has been the unofficial face of the franchise since about 2009. But he became the undisputed man last month when longtime star Ichiro was traded. Unlike Ichiro, who just wanted to do his job at an excellent level and leave the rest to others, Hernandez loves the attention and responsibility.

He's a leader in the clubhouse. He's serious about wanting to make the Mariners a winner instead of fleeing to a ready-made contender. And he does his job without complaining about what he can't control.

"I honestly feel like whenever Felix takes the mound, he's going to throw a no-hitter," Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders said. "Whenever he gives up his first hit in a game, I say to myself, 'Well, there goes the no-hitter.' If anybody deserves this, it's him."

During his on-field postgame interview with ROOT Sports' Jen Mueller on Wednesday, Hernandez said to the crowd, "I've been working so hard to throw one, and there it is -- for you guys."

King Felix is royalty. But Capitan FiFi is a star for the people.

It's a good thing Hernandez can multitask.

The 26-year-old Hernandez broke new ground this season with his perfect game, leadership and easy transition to being the franchise's chief representative. And his maturation isn't complete yet.

The party's over. It ended a while ago, actually. But, oh, what fun memories we have.

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