PEORIA, Ariz. — Felix Hernandez’ bid to prove he is ready to be the Mariners’ Opening Day starter for a 10th straight year could hardly have started more ominously.
On what was Hernandez’ first pitch of just his second start of the spring Saturday night against the Cubs, Ian Happ clubbed it over the left field wall for an opposite-field home run.
“That was the wind,’’ Hernandez shrugged later. “That fly in Seattle is not even on the warning track.’’
And from there, while Hernandez was hardly efficient, he settled down and allowed only the one run and four hits while striking out three in 3.2 innings in Seattle’s eventual 7-3 win, and in his eyes showed Mariner manager Scott Servais he deserves to start Thursday against Cleveland.
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“I’m happy with the work, I’m happy with my arm,’’ he said after what was his first start since Feb. 26 when he was hit by a line drive in his upper forearm. “So everything is fine.’’
And while Servais seemed to indicate that he agrees with Hernandez’ assessment, an official declaration that Hernandez will indeed get the start on Opening Day will have to wait at least another day.
Servais said Hernandez appeared to come out of the game fine in throwing 63 pitches but that they’ll still want to see how Hernandez feels a day later before naming him the starter against the Indians.
“The goal was to get him to 65 pitches,’’ Servais said. “We’ll see how he feels tomorrow and see where we go from there.’’
Servais said earlier in the week that Hernandez would be “given every opportunity’’ to make the Opening Day start despite having had so little work this spring due to the arm injury — he had thrown just 1.1 innings before Saturday night.
The other option is to go with James Paxton, who is scheduled to start Sunday.
Hernandez said he knew that how he performed against the Cubs would likely make-or-break his chances of keeping his Opening Day starting streak alive.
“Yes,’’ he said when asked if he regarded it as a “prove it’’ game. “Yes it was.’’
In fact, Hernandez said the realization of what was at stake had him feeling too hyped up early and resulted in some wildness in his first two innings.
“I think I was too excited,’’ he said. “I think today was like the first time out there in a long time. Opening Day I can control myself.’’
He needed 18 pitches to get through the first inning against what was a split-squad Cubs team that included few of Chicago’s big-name stars, when he also gave up a hard single to Efren Navarro along with the home run.
And he needed 20 to get through the second when he gave up a walk and a single before inducing a double play on a full-count pitch to Mark Zagunis.
“Bad,’’ he said of his command. “Bad. Really bad.’’
Said Servais: “Thought he was really amped up. Thought he overthrew a little bit in the first inning, part of the second inning out there. Thought his fastball had really good life. Sometimes when you are a little amped up the command of the secondary pitches isn’t quite there.’’
But it got better from there as he retired five of the final six batters he faced, leaving with a runner on second in the fourth after reaching his pitch count.
Hernandez credited a talk with catcher Mike Zunino, who told him basically to stop trying to hard.
“Talked to Z, he said don’t try to be too quick to the plate, just don’t rush to the plate and trust the 85 percent that you have and that will be good,’’ he said.
Hernandez also pitched without sleeves, something he said he hadn’t done in roughly 10 years, deciding to take them off after warming up earlier in the day.
He hopes to put them back on Thursday when he says “it’ll be freezing.’’
But he wouldn’t have it any other way making clear that he hopes to be on the mound Opening Day.
“It means a lot,’’ he said. “It means a lot to any pitcher. It’s Opening Day of the season. A lot of eyes on you.’’
Servais had said before the game he wanted to see Hernandez go at least four innings or so and throw 60 pitches or so, which he said would show that Hernandez would be able to maybe go five against the Indians.
Hernandez, though, said he’s ready to go more if asked.
“I can go to maybe 90,’’ he said.
Though with the command he had Saturday it would likely take that many to get through five.
Hernandez said he felt good with his fastball, which was consistently in the 91-92 range and did not top 92, but agreed with Servais that he needs some refinement on his breaking pitches.
“Work on that in the bullpen Monday,’’ he said.
A 10th straight Opening Day start would tie Hernandez for fourth in Major League history with Roy Halladay, Walter Johnson and Steve Carlton behind only Jack Morris (14) and Robin Roberts and Tom Seaver (12).
“That’d be awesome,’’ he said.
And he promised that despite throwing just five innings this spring that he can be the vintage Hernandez if called on Thursday night.
“Yeah,’’ he said with a smile. “That’s the kind of guy I am.’’