Opening Day starter Hernandez a model of consistency
Ace to make club-record seventh start in opener, breaking Randy Johnson's mark
PEORIA, Ariz. -- When Lloyd McClendon signed on as the new Mariners manager last winter, he didn't hesitate when asked what he liked about his new team.
"Felix, Felix, Felix," McClendon said with a smile, knowing the importance of an ace pitcher for any Major League club.
That opinion hasn't changed any heading into Monday's Opening Day against the Angels in Anaheim, when Felix Hernandez will step to the hill to once again kick off the Mariners' season.
It will be the club-record seventh Opening Day start for Hernandez, and sixth in a row -- both marks breaking the former franchise benchmarks set by Randy Johnson.
"Not bad," Hernandez said, a smile creasing his face. "He's a great pitcher, he's going to be a Hall of Famer, so it's good to be there."
There are some who question why Hernandez has stayed so loyal to a team that has yet to reach the postseason during his nine years in the Majors. But he's never wavered, despite frequent conjecture from national media and fans who ponder his place in the Pacific Northwest.
"Everybody says that," Hernandez said. "But I'm happy here. I'm not going to leave. Don't worry."
He avoided even the prospect of free agency by extending his contract in 2013 with a seven-year, $175 million commitment that will keep him in Seattle through at least 2019. Now he looks around the clubhouse at new teammate Robinson Cano and the host of young, upcoming talent and restates his conviction.
"I believe," Hernandez said. "I believe in this team and what we're doing."
The 27-year-old has done everything possible to hold up his end of things since arriving in Seattle as a 19-year-old rookie in 2005. He's pitched 190-plus innings every year for the past eight seasons, including 200-plus for the last six.
He's earned four American League All-Star berths (2009, '11, '12 and '13), one Cy Young Award (2010) and thrown a perfect game (2012). He and Tigers workhorse Justin Verlander are the only pitchers in the Majors to total 200 strikeouts and 200 innings in each of the last five seasons. And in that same span, he's thrown the most quality starts in the Majors (124), and his 2.85 ERA is second only to Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers among regular starting pitchers.
Still, he was driven to get better over the offseason. He worked out with Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval and noted Venezuelan trainer Rafael Alvarez every day in January to prepare for this season. Hernandez wanted to strengthen his lower body to regain some of the power he felt he'd lost in recent years when he cut down on his weight.
"You always are looking for the right balance," he said, noting he struggled at the end of last year when he posted a 1-6 mark and 5.16 ERA in his final nine starts to finish 12-10 with a 3.04 ERA.
Even "The King" knows he has room for improvement.
"That's always the challenge for me, to get better every year," Hernandez said. "It's just trying to be more consistent. At the end of last year, I was hurt a little bit and wasn't consistent. That's what I'm trying to do this year."
|Projected Opening Day lineup|
Some have raised their eyebrows at the gradual decline in Hernandez's fastball velocity over the last few years. He's no longer the upper-90s flame thrower who arrived in Seattle in 2005. He's much smarter about his business now, knowing his wicked changeup and quality curve and slider keep hitters swinging and missing, and extend his durability.
Those who watch Hernandez up close and personal marvel at the tools he has at his disposal on the mound. Veteran right-hander Scott Baker, who spent the spring fighting for a rotation spot after seven seasons with the Twins, said Hernandez's velocity shouldn't even be a topic.
"He doesn't need to throw mid- to upper-90s," Baker said. "He just doesn't need to. It's unnecessary, and personally I don't think it's a good thing to begin with. Of course you get away with a lot more, but that is extremely taxing. Good grief. He's as good as it gets. He's every bit the term 'pitcher.' That's what Felix is. He knows how to pitch. He's got the best of both worlds. He knows how to pitch and he's got great stuff to go with it."
McClendon spent the last eight years with the Tigers, and thus is well versed with another ace in Verlander. He says having such a "stopper" at the top of a rotation is crucial, but notes the two go about things differently.
"Verlander is more a pure power guy," McClendon said. "Felix has the ability to attack you in a lot of different ways. He can go power, he can go finesse. I'd say his command is probably a little better than Justin's."
Hernandez trades a few ticks off the radar gun for his incredible durability, having started 30 or more games for eight years in a row. Baker noted what a grind it is for any pitcher to accumulate 200 innings even in one season, let alone eight straight, and that Hernandez is even more effective now that he's added guile to his arsenal.
"What does it matter how you get to the end result, as long as you're still getting there?" Baker said. "Which he is. As an organization or coaching staff, I'd be like, 'Hey, you don't need to throw harder. Just go out there and continue to do what you're doing.'"
For Hernandez, that isn't a problem. He'll take the ball Monday night in Anaheim, becoming the first pitcher in Major League history to make seven Opening Day starts before turning 28.
In his previous six Opening Day efforts? Hernandez is 4-0 with a 1.33 ERA.