TACOMA — In what could possibly be his last game ever at Cheney Stadium, Felix Hernandez received a standing ovation from an appreciative and perhaps nostalgic crowd of 6,978, most of whom were there to see him pitch Monday night in Tacoma.
Hernandez tipped his cap and waved as he exited with no outs in the fourth inning of the Rainiers’ 8-3 victory over Salt Lake. His outing didn’t go as long as planned in terms of innings, but he left the game feeling healthy and with the expectation of re-joining the Mariners starting rotation this weekend.
“It was OK,” he said. “It wasn’t bad. I feel good and that’s the main thing. It’s not the result I wanted, but I feel good.”
After issuing back-to-back walks to start the fourth inning and having thrown 69 pitches, Rainiers manager Daren Brown decided remove Hernandez, who had a limit of around 70-75 pitches for the game. Reliever Mike Wright made sure those two runners, who belonged to Hernandez, didn’t score, putting up scoreless inning in relief.
“I just lost my command,” Hernandez said.
His official line was three-plus innings pitched with one run allowed on four hits with three walks and five strikeouts, including four swinging. His fastball sat around 88-90 mph with a few that touched 91 mph on the stadium radar gun. He had 10 first-pitch strikes to the first 12 batters he faced, which is an important aspect for Hernandez’s success. His best pitch — the biting curveball — was effective and his changeup got better as the outing went on.
“I had good sinker, good curveball and a good changeup,” he said. “I didn’t use my slider much.”
His lone run allowed came in the first inning. He gave up a one-out single to Taylor Ward and then walked Aaron Knapp. After recording a strikeout for the second out of the inning, Jose Rojas ambushed a first-pitch fastball for a run-scoring single. Hernandez came back to strike out Jarrett Parker to end the inning.
Hernandez worked the next two innings scoreless, allowing a runner in each.
“I got more comfortable on the mound,” he said. “I feel like I was driving the ball off to the plate.”
In the fourth inning, he threw just two strikes out of 10 pitches in the two walks. He didn’t get any help from home plate umpire Danny Arrieta, who appeared to miss three strikes in that sequence.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” he said with a grin when asked about the strike zone.
So what’s next? It would seem like he’s ready to return to a Mariners rotation that has been operating with only four starters since the trade of Mike Leake at the MLB trade deadline. A handful of well-timed offdays and one bullpen start have allowed the Mariners to stay with a four-man rotation. But the fifth spot comes open again on Saturday. Hernandez would be a logical candidate. The only other possibility would be lefty Justus Sheffield, who is expected to be called up in the coming weeks.
“That’s what I heard that I think it’s Saturday,” Hernandez said of when he’d return.
At this point, he doesn’t feel another rehab start is necessary.
“What else am I going to show them to be up there,” he said. “I feel pretty good and I’m prepared to go.”
He was placed on the injured list on May 12 with a lat strain and then suffered a setback during an initial rehab stint in mid-June that kept him out another two months. He’s now missed 84 games in what is expected to his final year in the only organization he’s ever known. With his contract up after this season and free agency looming, Hernandez wants to return to T-Mobile Park at least once more to pitch in what has been his home stadium for his entire big league career.
“I can’t wait to go out there and pitch again,” he said. “It’s going to be my last year. I don’t know what’s going to happen next year so I need to go out there and show them that I still love the fans and still love Seattle.”
Maybe he could salvage something from what’s left in this season.
“It’s been frustrating,” he said. “It’s been tough in my mind. But you know what, you have to forget about it. You’ve got a month and a half left, you have to go out there and pitch.”