Hernandez gave up three hits, including a double, walked a batter, and allowed a run in two innings. He also induced two double plays and took steps toward again being the ace the Mariners have come to expect.
GLENDALE, Ariz. – It was just an early day in spring training, nothing more. Trying to read too much into anything at this stage, good or bad, has a long-standing track record of deception.
Yet because it was Felix Hernandez on the mound, and because his pursuit of the allure he used to have, but let partially slip away, is the prime story of Mariners camp, well, everyone watched a little more closely. Scouts and executives in the stands. The manager in the dugout. Teammates on the field – all fully aware how important a revived King is to the Mariners’ goal of finally making the playoffs.
What they saw was an indication, a hint, a clue; certainly not some sort of epiphany that Hernandez is cured, or Hernandez will never be elite again. Just call it, as manager Scott Servais did, “a step in the right direction.”
In two innings against the White Sox, Hernandez threw 33 pitches, 17 of them strikes. He gave up three hits, including a double, walked a batter and allowed a run. He coaxed two double plays. He didn’t strike out anyone.
So: Forget about all that. If Hernandez had gotten a couple of calls on would-be strike threes he thought he should have – probably correctly — he would have had a much more efficient outing.
“I’m happy. Really happy,’’ Hernandez said afterward. “I feel real strong. I feel real good. Healthy.”
That’s a great place to start. The Mariners aren’t looking much at results right now, in the brief time they have Hernandez before he heads off with Team Venezuela for the World Baseball Classic. They are trying to navigate Hernandez through the issues they felt threw him off course last year. They want to guide him gently toward a revised mindset more befitting a soon-to-be 31-year-old pitcher with considerable mileage on an arm that isn’t quite as electric as it used to be.
“He can still be great,’’ pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre said. “He’s going to have to do it differently.”
Stottlemyre, along with Servais, is leading this subtle reshaping of Hernandez. Last year, his first with the ballclub as the latest in a long line of Mariners pitching coaches hoping to benefit from one of the greatest pitchers of his generation, Stottlemyre wisely bided his time, until he sensed Felix understood he had his best interests at heart.
“You know, I had to respect what he’s done in the game, and you don’t want to push on that pedal too early until you gain his trust and the confidence he has in me,’’ Stottlemyre said. “It’s been a great working relationship. I just want greatness from him. He knows that.”
The first step was getting Hernandez into better shape, particularly his legs. That was something that he had done over the winter, on his own initiative, and everyone breathed a little easier when Hernandez showed up in camp looking different, in a good way. Stronger, more muscular – which certainly helps, but doesn’t necessarily solve the command issues that led Hernandez down the road toward ordinariness.
That was Stottlemyre’s main mission, to get him to attack the game in a different way, to become more of a pitch-maker, no longer able to challenge hitters and win almost every time on pure ability. And yet Hernandez still must trust his stuff, which has enough movement and deception to dominate, albeit in a different way.
If that sounds like a delicate balance, you’re right. Hernandez can be stubborn, which has actually served him well. But having been humbled last year, he’s buying into Stottlemyre’s wisdom about the need to get ahead of hitters to lower his pitch count, and to re-establish his fastball.
“From last year, we’re going to cut down on his walks,’’ Stottlemyre said. “We talked about that. I don’t like to talk about walking guys, but for him, we’re going to take some walks away and get some early counts, be a little more efficient. We know Felix is very stingy and never gives in to hitters, but sometimes you get high pitch counts. We’ve talked about that, and he’s bought into that.”
Hernandez used to throw high heat in his prime, peaking at an average of 96 mph in 2007. He averaged 94.4 in his Cy Young season of 2010. Last year, he averaged 90.5. On Tuesday, facing a split-squad White Sox team, Hernandez reached 92 but was mostly 90 or 91. It’s a new reality for The King.
“I think he’s starting to understand,’’ Stottlemyre said. “Look, he doesn’t have the same fastball that he had anymore. So we’ve talked about the importance of pitching and getting in good counts. I’ve encouraged him not to be so nasty early (in the count). I look at the approach hitters have against him, and them laying off pitches early in counts.”
This was the first step down that road toward a revamped game plan, on a wet day that threatened the game right up until nearly game time, when the skies cleared. Afterward, Hernandez said he pitched with intensity that belied the date. His fastball command was just a little off, but fixable, he felt. Instead of easing his way into his first spring start, “I was 100 percent. I was throwing everything in there.”
He liked his slider a lot, and his curveball, too. He felt his changeup needed work, but no big deal, because he was concentrating on his fastball almost exclusively while warming up. Hernandez’s changeup, the scourge of hitters for a decade, will always be a weapon, as long as he has the fastball to play off it. And when he talked to his catcher, Carlos Ruiz, about that, he got encouragement.
“I threw a lot of fastballs, and Ruiz tells me it looked fine,’’ he said.
Ruiz had never caught Hernandez in a game, only admired him from afar. He thought Hernandez was appropriately aggressive, trying to get those good counts, with encouraging command. Like Hernandez, he thought they had both Yoan Moncada and Nick Delmonico struck out in the second. The umpire didn’t give them either call, and Moncada walked, while Delmonico doubled off the wall.
“That would have changed the inning,’’ Ruiz said. “That was huge.”
Ruiz was asked the money question, if he thought Hernandez could be dominant again.
“He’s feeling strong and he still has that stuff there,’’ he said. “We have to mix really good and he’s going to be fine. He’s aggressive and his fastball is coming out good.”
Servais has quietly watched Hernandez go about his business this spring, and he likes what he sees – an urgency brought about not just by the fast-approaching WBC, but wounded pride. He and Stottlemyre see Hernandez trying approaches he shunned last year, and working harder between bullpen sessions. His focus seems keener. Both Servais and Stottlemyre used the same phrase: Felix is in a good place.
“He’s been in a great spot all spring, very upbeat, very positive, but taking things a little more serious,’’ Servais said.
Yeah, I know, I know, we hear that kind of stuff every spring. Roll your eyes, if you must. It’s just the beginning of March, and it doesn’t mean much now. It might not mean much later, either. But if Felix is to regain his greatness, this is where it starts.