With contract negotiations behind him, and a $175 million deal signed, Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez returned to Arizona and took the field for a spring-training workout.
PEORIA, Ariz. — With cameras rolling and teammates looking on, Felix Hernandez put money and contracts aside and turned his focus back to what he loves doing best.
A smiling Hernandez took the field Friday on the third day of Mariners spring training workouts for pitchers and catchers. Hernandez played catch and participated in fielding drills, though the Mariners will ease him into a more strenuous throwing regimen in the days ahead.
With $175 million at stake the next seven years, nobody wants to rush his arm or add unnecessarily to the stress it has endured throwing seven seasons already by age 26. Hernandez is aware of the responsibility that comes with being the face of the Seattle franchise, but is nonetheless eager to get back to playing baseball again.
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“It’s a big thing for me,” he said of taking the field. “Because it (the negotiation process) is not in my mind anymore. I’ve just got to go out there and do my best.”
And on this day, all that entailed was scooping up a few bunts and comebackers hits by coaches and flipping them to first base. Hernandez is used to carrying a much heavier load, having fronted the starting rotation through three seasons of 95 losses or more the past four years, all the while keeping his smile and trying to convince people he truly wants to stay.
That appreciation was returned Tuesday, when Hernandez stepped off an elevator at Safeco Field for his news conference and was greeted by a throng of cheering team employees. He was overcome by emotion from that moment on, thinking about his parents, his family and life in Venezuela.
He said Friday the stress and uncertainty of the past two weeks of contract talks had been “tough” and played into the surge of feelings.
“It was hard not to be crying,” he said. “After the other day, in the elevator, with all the people there and to see my wife crying, it was hard for me.”
He said he plans to make good on the pledge to be part of a contending team in Seattle. He’ll also continue to embrace the role of the team’s star and the responsibilities that come with that.
“I’ve always been responsible with this team because of the way they’ve been with me and everything they did for me,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going to change. I’m going to be the same guy I was before.”
Hernandez said he felt no different waking up Wednesday morning than he had before the nine-figure pay boost the day before. He used the day to relax and spend time with his family before flying Thursday to Arizona.
Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis said the team will take a slower approach to Hernandez’s workload this spring, similar to what the team did from 2009 through 2011. The team is well aware of the innings Hernandez has logged and of the investment that was just made.
“I watched him closely today and he just played catch,” Willis said. “The main reason for that was just because of his inactivity for the past six days, seven days, with the contract negotiations going back and forth to Seattle and here.
“I’m sure he’s mentally fatigued a little and physically as well. So, we just want to make sure he doesn’t get too crazy and overdo it.”
Willis said the staff was aware of Hernandez’s past workload and high innings count and kept it in mind while watching the ace go winless through last September. An effort was made not to overtax Hernandez’s arm and to get him out of games earlier if he was having too many stressful innings.
And because of that, Willis said Hernandez won’t suffer any “carry over” to start 2013 and will hopefully finish the year stronger.
“Obviously, we keep a record of all the pitch counts and all the tough innings,” he said. “You can’t just look at innings counts because that would be misleading. I think if you look at it, his toughest innings are normally the first ones more than any other inning.
“And when that’s the toughest inning, he’s able to recover and get through by making the adjustments he needs. And then he usually gets more effective as the game progresses. When guys have those really strenuous innings late in a game, that’s when it’s more of a concern.”
Hernandez skipping the World Baseball Classic will help the Mariners monitor his arm more closely this spring and pull him back if they feel he needs rest. Some in Venezuela have criticized Hernandez’s decision to pull out, but Hernandez shrugged it off and said it was an easy call.
“It was my decision,” Hernandez said. “I felt the best thing for me was to stay here with my teammates. Because this is a big deal. This is a big deal. So, it’s better for me to be here with those guys.”
The dollars committed were a huge deal for the team’s ownership, which likely wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of Hernandez playing for somebody else before contract ink was even dry.
And regardless of whether the decision was Hernandez’s alone, he realizes now that such choices have an impact well beyond him. That much was clear when Hernandez what asked what he thinks being a franchise face actually entails outside the lines.
His reply was simple.
“Anything they ask me to do, I’ll do it.”
• Position players took physicals Friday and will partake in the team’s first full-squad workout on Saturday morning.
• Pitcher Jhonny Nunez was expected to arrive in camp late Friday from his native Dominican Republic. Catcher Ronny Paulino was still in the Dominican getting visa paperwork published and could take a few days more.