Felix Hernandez allowed three runs on six hits in 32/3 innings of his rehab start at Everett, but said his leg felt fine and plans to start for the Mariners July 20 at Safeco Field.
EVERETT — For the Everett AquaSox, Felix Hernandez’s rehab appearance Sunday was a genuine Event, capital E, maybe the biggest thing to hit Everett Memorial Stadium since Jay Buhner did a three-game stint in 2001.
“It’s been gangbusters – a lot of energy, very electric,’’ enthused general manager Danny Tetzlaff, who has spent the last few days parrying ticket requests for a sold-out ballpark that was packed to the gills.
“NASCAR has Daytona to start the season. In Game 13 at home, we have our Super Bowl.”
To Hernandez himself, it was a nostalgic return to the short-season Class A ballpark where he debuted stateside as a 17-year-old phenom in 2003, an 11-game pit stop on his rocket blast to stardom.
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On Sunday, Hernandez was re-introduced to his host family back in 2003, and marveled how much their young daughter had grown. And Hernandez laughed when reminded of his last day in Everett in August of ’03, a wild brawl against Eugene in which Hernandez wound up as one of nine AquaSox players suspended. He never served, getting promoted to Class A Wisconsin instead.
“I was in the middle of that fight,’’ he said, smiling. “They started it. But I was the first guy to the mound.”
But mostly, it was an important day at the office for Hernandez, who hadn’t pitched in a game since May 27, a loss to the Twins. Four days later, Hernandez strained his calf during pregame stretching and went on the disabled list for just the third time in his career.
Though the Mariners originally thought he would miss just two starts, Hernandez had been out of action for six weeks when he strolled slowly to the Everett mound at 4 p.m. to face the Spokane Indians.
By the time Hernandez departed with two outs in the fourth, handing the ball to his brother, Everett pitching coach Moises Hernandez, and giving him a fist bump and a hug, King Felix had made a huge step toward returning to the Mariners rotation.
In fact, he assured the small group of reporters afterward that he would be back as projected after the All-Star break, following another rehab outing Friday in Tacoma.
“I’ll be there on the mound at Safeco Field on July 20,’’ he said. “Guaranteed.”
It wasn’t a flawless outing, by any stretch. Hernandez seemed to fight himself and the mound, and wound up giving up six hits and three runs. But two were infield hits, one was a pop fly that dropped in, and another was a line drive misplayed into a triple by center fielder Kyle Lewis, Seattle’s recent first-round draft pick.
“I wasn’t sharp enough,’’ Hernandez said. “I had mechanical problems. I didn’t feel comfortable. But that’s OK. My leg felt fine. That’s the big thing.”
When I asked him if his calf felt 100 percent, Hernandez paused and said, “Getting there. It’s getting there.”
Hernandez threw 59 pitches (39 strikes), striking out six and walking two, and said his arm felt rested and lively. He reached 92 mph on the radar gun and used all his pitches, but definitely exhibited some rust. It was exacerbated by a mound he called “a little flat.”
“I was opening too much. I couldn’t push. I don’t know why. I’ll fix that,’’ he said. “It’s been awhile, so that’s probably to be expected. When I do more and more, I’ll get better.”
Hernandez was impressed by the sellout crowd of 5,189, one of the largest in the history of Everett Memorial Stadium. Many were dressed in Felix gear and turned the place into King’s Court North with K cards and strikeout chants.
“That was awesome,’’ Hernandez said. “I should have thrown four innings, zeroes. I was a little disappointed.”
Instead, he was pulled after issuing a walk to reload the bases after giving up two runs in the fourth, leading to the poignant moment both he and Moises had anticipated. At first, Felix feigned irritation when his brother arrived at the mound before handing over the ball.
“The important thing is he feels good right now,’’ Moises Hernandez said. “He had a lot of fun tonight.”
It was apparent from the start this wasn’t an ordinary night in Everett. For instance, Hernandez might have been the first player in Northwest League history to arrive in a Rolls-Royce. And several AquaSox players posed for selfies in the clubhouse with their short-lived teammate.
Second baseman Bryson Brigman tweeted out, “Lucky enough to play behind king felix tonight. Going to be an awesome experience #pleasenoEs.”
“You can’t really match it, having a big-leaguer throw for you, an ace,’’ Everett outfielder Austin Grebeck said. “We came out and wanted to get a win for him.”
On the other side, Spokane’s hitters were psyched to test themselves against a former Cy Young winner.
“We had everything to gain and nothing to lose, because nothing’s expected,’’ Spokane manager Tim Hulett said. “You’ve got a guy who’s one of the best pitchers in baseball. He’s out there getting his work in. Our guys are playing their hearts out.”
And when the night ended with a rally by Everett in the ninth for a 7-6 victory, Lewis providing the walkoff two-run single, there was one last memory, courtesy of Hernandez: An Italian dinner provided by The King.