The King’s Court was no less full, no less boisterous than it was during its hero’s heyday. The fans still donned yellow, still chanted “K!,” still exuded the energy they showed during Felix Hernandez’s All-Star years.
Based on the scene, a man who had just awoke from a five-year coma would have assumed Hernandez was still an ace — still the force that could give the Mariners a chance regardless of his run support or who was in the opposing lineup. The surprising part? He might have thought the same thing after the game, too.
Who knows if we’ll see another performance like that from him this season, but for one evening, the Felix of today resembled the Felix of old. Despite M’s manager Scott Servais keeping him out of the rotation for the first two weeks of the season, Hernandez managed to keep his team in the game Monday.
The final stat line read: 51/3 innings pitched, one earned run, seven hits, four strikeouts and zero walks. An all-time performance for the former Cy Young winner? No.
But it was miles beyond most people’s expectations.
What’s it been like having to wait this long to pitch?
“It’s been tough,” Hernandez said.
Was it important to show people that you still have it?
“I don’t have to show people what I have to do,” he replied. “I just gotta do it for myself.”
Since 2014, when he posted an American-League leading 2.14 ERA, Felix has watched his skills erode rapidly. His ERA rose to 3.53 in 2015, to 3.82 in ’16, to 4.36 in ’17, to 5.55 last season.
This past spring training was particularly woeful, as he allowed 13 runs in 71/3 innings. If it weren’t for his legacy and $27.5 million contract, there is a zero percent chance he would have been on Seattle’s opening-day roster.
But he does have that legacy, and he did ink that deal, so for the 15th straight season Monday, Hernandez logged a start for the Mariners. He took on a Los Angeles Angels team that boasted two-time MVP Mike Trout, who has had more success against Felix than he has against any other pitcher.
If there was ever a setup for an epic unraveling, this was it.
But it never happened.
Hernandez kept his composure, and kept the Angels at bay.
“It’s a little different when you’re playing in the season instead of spring training,” Hernandez said. “Here I just go out and make my pitch and give us a chance to win.”
He wasn’t anywhere close to perfect, of course.
Hernandez hit Trout on the hand in the first inning, but then forced Justin Bour into a fielder’s choice and got Andrelton Simmons to fly out to left. In the second, he gave up a single to Albert Pujols, who reached second on an error, and eventually scored on a wild pitch — though it was ruled an unearned run. He notched two strikeouts in a scoreless third inning, allowed two runs in the fourth (although one was unearned), and had a 1-2-3 fifth before being pulled in the sixth after allowing two singles.
The biggest takeaways were that Hernandez consistently stayed ahead of the count and never collapsed. The latter has been the issue with him over the past couple of seasons. Felix would give the Mariners three quality innings before allowing five extra-base hits in the fourth.
That’s part of the reason he went 0-8 in his last 11 starts of 2018, all while racking up a 6.34 ERA over that stretch.
But that Hernandez never appeared Monday. And when the Mariners beat the Angels 6-3, it marked his first win since June 30 of last year.
What this means going forward? Oh, who knows? Maybe it just means anyone on a major-league diamond can surprise anyone at anytime — including himself.
The Mariners weren’t supposed to be 6-1 at this point, and Felix wasn’t supposed to be able to compete.
But here they are seven games into the season, and there he was Monday night.
Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto told a lot of people 2019 was going to be a “step-back” year. It just doesn’t seem like he’s told the players yet.