MINNEAPOLIS -- We've been calling him "King Felix" since he was 19, well before he firmly established himself at the Major League level. It's a credit to Felix Hernandez that the nickname has stuck, that those of us who dropped it into conversation or copy were not made to look like jesters.
Now, Hernandez finally has an assignment fit for a King.
American League manager John Farrell probably did not have to think long and hard about his starting choice for the 85th All-Star Game, which takes place at 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday night on FOX, because Felix's stats and standing screamed his case.
"He's the King for a reason," Hernandez's Mariners teammate Kyle Seager said. "This is the perfect stage for him."
The stage will be set at Target Field, where Hernandez, a five-time All-Star and former Cy Young Award winner, will throw the first pitch for an AL team looking for its second consecutive victory.
"There are many deserving candidates to be the starting pitcher for this team," Farrell said. "But given what [Hernandez] has done over a long and successful career and what he's doing this year, it's an honor to name him the starter for this game."
Felix becomes the first Mariners pitcher to start the All-Star Game since Randy Johnson in 1997. In fact, his 2.12 ERA broke Johnson's club record for the lowest such mark at the All-Star break.
Hernandez also becomes the first Venezuelan pitcher ever to start the game, and he'll have a Venezuelan batterymate in Royals catcher Salvador Perez.
"It's an honor," Hernandez said. "To be the first Venezuelan guy is something special."
If Hernandez had any competition whatsoever for this start, it was the Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka, but Tanaka's elbow injury issue that landed him on the disabled list just before the break crossed him off the active All-Star squad.
And so it's Hernandez, possessor of that sparkling 11-2 record through 20 starts in what has been a resurgent 2014 season for the Mariners.
That Felix is good is a given. That he actually appears to be getting better with age is what's truly remarkable.
Hernandez has a 0.90 WHIP, and he's struck out 154 batters against just 25 walks in 144 1/3 innings -- the best strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.16) of his career. His ballpark-adjusted ERA+ of 177 (which reflects that the league average is 77 percent higher) is, at this point, also the best of his career -- even better than the 174 mark he held at the end of his Cy season in 2010.
"Everything comes out of the same window," said Indians manager Terry Francona, a coach on Farrell's staff. "But when it gets about 10 feet from the hitter, it seems to change its mind. The game we saw him [last month], unless he made a mistake or guessed right, which is not easy, he just has so many different ways to get you out."
Said Perez: "He's got one pitch -- it's like a sinker and a slider that goes down and then away. I told him that's one pitch I want to try to catch."
How reliable has Hernandez been this season? You have to go all the way back to May 12 to find the last time he gave up more than two runs in an outing.
In the 11 starts since, Hernandez is 7-1 with a 1.48 ERA and a ridiculous .173 average against.
"The guy's phenomenal," Seager said. "I remember last year wondering how it could get any better. But each year, he's done that."
Incidentally, Hernandez has taken a liking to Target Field in the past, going 2-1 with a 1.88 ERA in three previous starts in the pitcher-friendly ballpark. And though he has been on the AL roster four previous times, this will mark just the third time he actually appears in the All-Star Game. He pitched a scoreless inning in 2009, and again in '13.
"It's always fun," he said. "I've just got to go out there and do what I do, throw up zeros to help my team win."
All hail the King.