EVERETT — It wasn’t T-Mobile Park. There weren’t millionaires populating the dugouts. There weren’t roars you could hear from the middle of Pioneer Square.
But none of that was necessary for Felix Hernandez on Friday night. To finally be back competing after three months of waiting was enough for the Mariners legend.
“It feels good to be back on the mound,” said Hernandez, who made his first rehab start with the short-season AquaSox after suffering a latissimus dorsi strain in May. “The physical feels fine. I just need to keep working.”
Minutes after the P.A. announcer at Funko Field yelled “we got a King in the house tonight!” Felix threw a fastball just off the plate that Spokane Indians leadoff man Derwin Barreto chased for strike one.
Hernandez got him to ground out to first one pitch later, then retired Kenen Irizarry via a ground out to second, then struck David Garcia out on four pitches. An inning later, Spokane’s Kellen Strahm grounded out to third, then Luis Asuncion struck out swinging, then Alexander Ovalles grounded out to second.
Six up for the Indians, six down for the Indians, as Felix threw 13 of his 20 pitches for strikes. Perhaps it doesn’t mean much of anything. Most of the Spokane players are from 18 to 22 years old. But given what Hernandez was enduring before his early season injury, dominating any group of hitters had to feel gratifying.
Hernandez’s major-league ERA this season is 6.52 through 38 2/3 innings. That’s up from 5.55 last year and 4.36 the year before that. Felix admitted last week he didn’t envision anything like this when the season began. How could he when he spent the first decade of his career as one of the best pitchers in the game?
No, Friday didn’t cement much of anything in terms of his future. But at the very least, it showed he wasn’t regressing even further.
“I had a lot of movement on my fastball, good command of my curveball, good changeup. I was really happy about it,” Felix said. “I just gotta keep building it up.”
Perhaps that seems highly improbable given his plunge over the past couple of seasons, but his confidence rarely wavers despite his performance.
Besides, for the AquaSox fans occupying all 3,682 seats Friday, he was still King. The locals flooded into the park, then mobbed him when he walked off the field, prompting a distinct smile on Hernandez’s face.
He likes coming out to Everett. He pitched here three years ago when his brother Moises was the AquaSox pitching coach, and, of course, when he was a teenager in 2003. His fans have been good to him, so he returned the favor Friday.
“It’s fun to be back in here. I’m happy to be here,” Felix said. “The fans are really supportive. It was fun.”
In case you were wondering, the food spread Hernandez served the minor-leaguers Friday was prime rib from Buzz Inn Steakhouse. Spoiling the up-and-comers is a tradition for big-leaguers coming down for a rehab start. And Friday, even if he has been struggling at baseball’s highest level, Felix reminded the young guys he’s still a major-leaguer.
Whether that will ever be the case after this season remains to be seen for the 33-year-old. But despite his ever-dipping production levels, he still thinks he has the goods.
Friday didn’t prove that to be true, but it at least entertained the possibility.