PEORIA, ARIZ. Felix Hernandez smiled and exclaimed it a few times in excitement.
“I told you!” he said. “I told you.”
This was just after Mariners manager Scott Servais announced that the 31-year-old pitcher, who has spent all 13 of his big-league seasons in Seattle, would get his 10th consecutive Opening Day start – something that was by no means a sure thing after the 2017 season James Paxton had.
And this decision came just a few days after Servais directed a question at Hernandez in their closed-off Mariners spring-training clubhouse.
“What completes Felix Hernandez?”
He later shared his answer publicly.
“It’s getting to the playoffs with this team, with those guys,” Hernandez said. “I made a commitment to stay here for a long time and I think that the city of Seattle deserves to be in the playoffs. We deserve to be in the playoffs.”
He’s pitched just five innings of Cactus League play as he gets set to embark on the longest active streak of Opening Day starts in MLB.
But just what makes Hernandez ready to roll against the Indians on Thursday – as manager Scott Servais officially announced Sunday – in front of what will most likely be a packed house at Safeco Field?
“That’s the kind of guy that I am,” he said.
He’s the kind of guy who has a Cy Young (and maybe should have a few more) with six All-Star appearances, two ERA titles and the Mariners’ club record for career strikeouts (48th-most all time).
He’s the kind of guy who earned a title of King, and a court in his honor.
And only six other pitchers in baseball history have at least 10 consecutive Opening Day starts – a company that includes Roy Halladay, Walter Johnson, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Robin Roberts and Jack Morris.
Servais beamed about Hernandez on Sunday, saying this is the best spot he’s seen the ace pitcher in since Servais took over before the 2016 season. And not just on the field.
“He’s had a good spring training other than he hasn’t thrown a lot of innings,” Servais said. “Everything else we’ve asked him to do is off the charts. I’m excited to get him out there.”
Not that this is Cy Young Hernandez. Servais was quick to point out that hitters will get him. He’s no superhuman these days.
But there’s just something.
“He’s just in a different spot. I can’t really describe it,” Servais said. “When you’re around it every day it just feels different. I like where he’s at right now. I really feel like that he’s engaged with his teammates and it’s very clear what the goal is here in our clubhouse and he wants to be a big part of it.”
But Hernandez knows he has a lot of proving to do.
Saturday was a prove-it start against the Chicago Cubs, in his first appearance since taking a comebacker off his upper right forearm (which could have been worse) almost a month ago on Feb. 26.
And this didn’t start well.
His first pitch, a 91-mph fastball, was outside, belt high and just right for Ian Happ, who parked it just over the left-field wall for a home run.
“That was the wind,” Hernandez said. “If that was in Seattle it doesn’t even land on the warning track.”
But his command struggled compared to his minor league start on Tuesday.
“Blah, blah, really bad,” Hernandez said. “I threw ugly. I think I was too tense.”
That was the only run he’d allow in 3 2/3 innings, but he used 38 pitches in the first two frames, finishing at 63 pitches in front of 12,601 in attendance (the eighth-largest crowd in the history of Peoria Stadium, which the Mariners share with the Padres).
The Mariners won’t let Hernandez throw 100 pitches on Opening Day. They hope to keep him around 80-85 pitches or five good innings before turning it over to the bullpen. He just hasn’t pitched enough to be full-go on Thursday.
But, as Servais said, he’s been just as impressed with how Hernandez is off of the field.
“Felix has been a much different Felix in my time here and what I’ve seen this spring training,” Servais said. “Really, from Day One, we had really clear expectations coming into this camp. Unfortunately it got derailed a little bit when he took the line drive off the elbow, but he hasn’t backed off his work and he’s engaging with his teammates in the clubhouse.
“He’s been much more a part of the group. And really just wants to be a contributor and do his part for our season.”
Felix seemed a little baffled by that.
“I don’t know why he says I’m different,” Hernandez said. “I’m the same. He says I’m more into the guys and more working harder and stuff. But I think I’m the same guy.”
And he was fired up for his Saturday start. A little too much, maybe.
“It was like, first time out there in a long time,” Hernandez said. “Talking to Z (catcher Mike Zunino) it was about trying not to be too quick to the plate. Trust the 85 percent you have and you’ll be good.”
Hernandez had the toughest season of his major league career in 2017, throwing 16 starts, hitting the disabled list twice and finishing with a 4.36 ERA in 86 2/3 innings.
His fastball topped at 92 mph on Saturday after he averaged just over 91 mph on it the past two seasons, according to Fangraphs. He averaged 94.3 mph on it in his Cy Young season of 2010.
And that first-pitch home run rekindled thoughts of last season, when he was dinged for 1.8 home runs per nine innings (the next-highest HR9 total of his career was a tie between his first full season in 2006 and 2016 – when it was 1.1).
“He gave up some homers last year in a year where a lot of guys gave up homers,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said in one of his podcasts. “But we saw his strikeout rate go up because he started adapting to his pitch selection. It’s not in his control and in some ways it’s not in our control how much he could take the mound last year. The combination of a long offseason, a new training regimen and a better understanding of who he is I think leads us to high hopes for what 2018 bears.”
They’re not looking for Cy Young Felix. They’re looking for the same approach they liked out of him last season, but they want the bulk of 2016, when he made 25 starts (and even that was his lowest total since his half-season rookie year in 2005, when his fastball consistently approached 99 mph).
But he’s still got his dive-off-a-cliff changeup, which they still see as among the best pitches in baseball, and Servais said he’s added some adjustments to his pitches and how he sequences them to disrupt hitters.
“We’re not talking about Felix’s fastball as if it’s Jamie Moyer’s heater,” Dipoto said. “It’s moving forward at a crisp pace.
“He has succeeded because he’s confident. We don’t want to take that confidence away. We believe in him and he believes in himself. At some point the player adapts and I really do think that what we saw last year from Felix is he started to adapt. He’s still confident in himself and he knows what to do.
“2016 was a big adjustment for him. In 2017 I think we saw what Felix can be capable of. If you extrapolate what he did over a long season – the results are there.”
And now, for the 10th consecutive season and 11th time overall in his 13-year career, Hernandez will have all eyes on him for Opening Day, joining that exclusive club before him.
Who would start the first game of a playoff series is a different question. James Paxton had a 2017 season that seems certainly deserving of suplanting Hernandez for that. But for Opening Day — nothing wrong with giving Hernandez a chance to prove he’s still got some royalty left in his arm.
“With the track record Felix has, He’s certainly worthy of being mentioned in that group,” Servais said of Hernandez’s comparison to the six other 10-straight opening-start pitchers. “No doubt about it. We’ve had the luxury of having Felix here for his entire career. Hopefully he still has plenty left in the tank and he can get us in a good spot as far as the playoffs go.”
Hernandez seemed a little emotional talking about the streak.
“Ten straight, one team is really a great honor for me,” he said. “(Servais) knows I can compete. He knows that. That’s why he’ll give me the ball. I love to be in front of the big crowds and big stage. I love that. It’s special. It’s special for me.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677
PROJECTING THE MARINERS’ OPENING DAY ROSTER
The News Tribune looked at each of the position groups and made some projections for how the 25-man lineup will look when the Mariners play the Indians on Thursday at Safeco Field.
Infield/catchers:Daniel Vogelbach’s hot spring might get him to Safeco Field – might
Pitching staff:For once, Felix not a given as the Opening Day starter