The wobbling Seattle Mariners needed this afternoon out of their ace. The weary bullpen needed Felix Hernandez's eight hefty innings, his 10 strikeouts, his give-me-the-ball-and-let-me-get-after-them approach. This is what the Mariners expect from him. This is the kind of pitcher he aspires to become. This is how an ace is supposed to pitch.
The wobbling Seattle Mariners needed this afternoon out of their ace. The weary bullpen needed Felix Hernandez’s eight hefty innings, his 10 strikeouts, his give-me-the-ball-and-let-me-get-after-them approach.
This is what the Mariners expect from him. This is the kind of pitcher he aspires to become. This is how an ace is supposed to pitch.
Maybe Hernandez wasn’t great in Sunday’s 5-4 win over the San Francisco Giants. Not King Felix. But he was good. Eight-innings, seven-hits, one-earned-run good.
Prince Felix, maybe?
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“He was going right after guys,” said closer David Aardsma, who picked up his sixth save with a scoreless ninth. “I think in his last couple of outings he was trying to pitch around guys a little bit more. Trying to throw stuff on the corners. Today you saw him go out there with the attitude of ‘here it comes’ and just throwing great stuff right by guys.”
He looked like the Felix Hernandez of April, when he began the year 4-0 with a 2.38 earned-run average after his first five starts. But the lion of April became the lamb of May.
Before Sunday’s rejuvenating outing, he was 0-3 and had a 6.75 ERA in May. He had been so inconsistent and so unspectacular, manager Don Wakamatsu had a sit-down smackdown with Hernandez last week.
Wakamatsu talked to him about preparation, about doing the “little things” better. He told Hernandez the game doesn’t begin with the first pitch and end with the last. Pitching is a seven-day-a-week learning process.
“For us, it’s always going to come down to what they’re doing prior to the game,” Wakamatsu said in his office before the game. “They say the battle is won before it’s even started.
“With him, the other day, when I called him in, it wasn’t so much his pitching, but the finer points of the game, like controlling the running game, which has a direct reflection on the mechanics of his delivery to home plate.”
The Mariners need Hernandez to always be the pitcher he was in April. They need him to be consistent. They need him to take them deep into games. They need this sunny Sunday Felix.
He threw 112 pitches; 83 were strikes. He struggled briefly in the fifth, when the Giants scored three unearned runs with two out, but he responded with three more crisp innings.
There was an extra hop in his step, an extra hop on his mid-90s fastball. His on-the-mound body language, which often acts as a barometer measuring his confidence level, was downright buoyant.
“We talked earlier today about Felix stepping up. I thought he stepped up today and did a phenomenal job,” Wakamatsu said. “Not just stuff-wise, but more importantly, because of the shape of our bullpen. We obviously needed the eight innings, and he gave some guys some rest. That’s what we’re talking about, being a team player.”
“He came right out of the chute. He was ready to compete today. The inning after he gave up runs, he went back out and responded. That’s all we ask. I’ve never questioned that Felix goes out and competes every day. It’s those little things, that if we include them in his repertoire, it’s just going to make him a better pitcher.”
There are days and nights when Hernandez is so good we forget his youth. We expect maturity when he’s still growing into the game. And even though he has thrown 730 big-league innings, he’s still just 23.
“In his defense, he’s been anointed and expected to be the guy at such an early age,” Wakamatsu said. “You try to educate young players. It’s not just about going out and wanting to win. It’s understanding his craft better as he goes forward.”
Hernandez’s head still has to catch up to his arm.
“I’ve never seen somebody be able to throw at the knees so consistently,” Aardsma said. “He has great stuff, but there’s other guys who have just as good of stuff. He throws at the knees every single pitch. I know I can’t do that. I couldn’t do that even if I underhanded the ball there. He’s great, man. You can tell that when he really wants to go out there and shut somebody down, you can’t touch him.”
It’s those other times that are frustrating. Those other outings when his youth shows. The six runs in four innings at Minnesota. The 11 hits and six runs allowed last week against the Angels.
“The guys he’s getting compared to, they’re 30 years old, 35 years old,” Aardsma said. “The thing is, as good as he is right now, he’s got a long way to go. And he’s going to be unbelievable.”
As good as he is, Hernandez still has more growing pains to experience, still has much more to learn, more to prove before the man who would be King can be King.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176.