Every Mariners fan can empathize with manager Scott Servais’ reaction after he watched Felix Hernandez and James Paxton work through two simulated innings prior to Friday’s game against the Los Angeles Angels.
"I realized how much I miss them," Servais said. "That’s the first thing that came into my mind. Very encouraging and positive signs for both of those guys. They seem to be on track to get into the rotation next week."
Will that be too late?
The Mariners entered the weekend at 69-71 and trailing Minnesota by four games in the race for the American League’s final wild-card berth. There are also five clubs between the Mariners and the Twins.
It’s a steep hill with just 22 games remaining.
Even so, getting Hernandez and Paxton back should help. Prior their latest injuries, Paxton was 12-3 with a 2.78 ERA in 20 starts, and Hernandez was 5-4 with a 4.28 ERA in 13 starts.
"I don’t know how long we’ve had them both in the rotation at the same time," Servais said. "It’s been a struggle. It will be a definite emotional boost for our team."
Hernandez hasn’t pitched since problems with bursitis in his shoulder resurfaced during a July 31 start at Texas. Paxton exited an Aug. 10 start against the Angels after suffering a strained left pectoral muscle.
Both reported no problems Friday beyond rustiness.
"I felt good, real good," said Hernandez, who threw 35 pitches. "Everything was down. Command was OK. I was too quick (in his delivery). I tried to find something with my mechanics. I was way too quick. At the end, I was way better."
Paxton threw 40 pitches.
"No issues with the pec," he said. "Rhythm felt pretty good. I dialed some pitches in there toward the end. Threw some good cutters. I got my curveball over toward the end, which was really good to feel and see.
"I was moving the fastball around pretty good, too. Overall, it was a good day."
Servais said it hasn’t been determined when Paxton and Hernandez will return to the rotation, but the likeliest plan is one will start Sept. 14 at Texas and the other will start Sept. 15 at Houston.
"We’ve played around with a couple of different scenarios," Servais said. "We’ll talk about it some more and get it mapped out."
A Sept. 14-15 return would permit Hernandez and Paxton to make four more starts before the regular season ends. Initially, both will be on restricted pitch counts and have another starting pitcher in reserve in a piggyback arrangement.
Servais cited 50-60 pitches as a likely first-start limit.
"Something in that ballpark would be my guess," he said. "You really don’t want to go more than that (the first time back). A lot of it depends on how hard they're working to get through that."
Each pitcher faced the same four batters in the simulated game: Gordon Beckham, Taylor Motter, Jacob Hannemann and Dan Vogelbach. Contact was generally weak with one notable exception.
Vogelbach crushed a fastball from Hernandez in the second inning and drove it into the top deck in right field. Asked about it afterward, Vogelbach just smiled sheepishly, but Hernandez smiled and noted: "He hit it pretty good."
It’s hard not to wonder how the Mariners might have fared had Hernandez and Paxton remained healthy throughout the season.
Hernandez previously missed 54 games from late April to mid-June because of an earlier battle with bursitis, while Paxton missed 24 games in May because of a strained left forearm muscle.
The Mariners entered spring training with an anticipated rotation of Hernandez, Paxton, Hisashi Iwakuma, Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo. Combined, that group has made just 61 starts.
Iwakuma hasn’t pitched since a shoulder injury surfaced after a May 3 start against the Angels, although he is also working to make a late-season return. Smyly suffered an elbow injury in spring training that led to season-ending surgery.
Only Gallardo has been healthy all year, but he is 5-10 with a 5.79 ERA in 26 games (including 22 starts) and recently lost his job in the rotation for a second time this season because of ineffectiveness.
Now Hernandez and Paxton are poised to return in hopes of contributing to a late September push.
"We’re four games back," Paxton said. "We’ve got some games to play. We’ve got to get hot, but this team is capable (of doing that). It’s definitely a steep climb, but we’re going to give it all we’ve got and see where we end up."
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners