This is merely a friendly reminder as Hernandez prepares to step to the mound Monday against the Rangers for his ninth Opening Day start, that his clock is tick-tick-ticking, seemingly faster and louder than ever.
ARLINGTON, Texas. — One of the touchstones of a new Mariners’ baseball season is Felix Hernandez’s birthday in the first week.
For a long time, it was a gleeful reminder of how precociously young he still was, compared to his bountiful talent. But gradually, the Hernandez birthday April 8 is turning into an alarm bell. On Friday, the same day the Mariners play their home opener against the Oakland A’s, the King turns 30.
In baseball terms, it’s an old 30. There’s a lot of mileage in that wondrous arm, which has fired 34,519 major-league pitches over 2,2621/3 innings. And done so, of course, brilliantly, producing a 143-101 record with a 3.11 earned-run average and 2,142 strikeouts.
Hernandez belongs on any short list of major-league aces, and has almost from the first day he burst upon the scene in 2005 as a 19-year-old phenom.
This is not to say that Hernandez is over the hill, or even that he has begun his decline years — even though it might be time to tuck that distasteful thought in the back of your mind. It’s just baseball reality.
No, this is merely a friendly reminder, as Hernandez prepares to step to the mound Monday against the Rangers for his ninth opening-day start, that his clock is tick-tick-ticking, seemingly faster and louder than ever.
But then, you knew that. Every Mariner fans feels the urgency to get a postseason berth out of Hernandez’s prime, before his prime is over. Hernandez feels it, yearns for a taste of meaningful baseball in October, and new manager Scott Servais wants him to get it.
“To be blunt, I would hope it would (be a motivation),’’ Servais said prior to the Mariners’ workout Sunday at Globe Life Park. “I think it defines everybody in their career at some point. The legacy you leave is durability. Being good for a long time makes you a great pitcher.
“But sometimes the separator is what you do in the postseason. As we’ve all followed the game, a lot of pitchers have nice careers, but they’re fantastic in the postseason and that’s what they’re often remembered for.”
Think of John Smoltz. Think of Curt Schilling. Think of Jack Morris’s epic 10-inning shutout to clinch the Twins’ World Series title in 1991. Think of Randy Johnson coming out of the bullpen on short rest in Game 5 of the Division Series in 1995, and in Game 7 of the World Series in 2001.
Hernandez has no such highlights. Not yet.
“So I think it’s time,’’ Servais said. “I talked about it when I got the job, I’ve talked about it through spring training, and I’ve talked about it with Felix. To lead the day you take the ball is big, to go out and lead by example. But be part of something that is bigger than yourself. He’s probably only going to take the ball 34, 35 times in a regular season. It’s going to take more than 35 wins for us to get where we want to go, so he needs to be a part of the whole thing, which he’s primed to do.”
There were some ominous signs last year, even though Hernandez won 18 games, the second-most of his career. His ERA of 3.53 was his highest since 2007, and almost a point and a half above his excellent 2014 season.
Much of that can be attributed to a handful of clunkers in which Hernandez was frighteningly hittable. Seven runs in 42/3 innings against the Yankees on June 1. Eight runs in one-third of an inning against the Astros on June 12. Ten runs in 21/3 innings against the Red Sox on Aug. 15.
Hernandez, who was 8-1 with a 1.91 ERA after throwing a four-hit shutout against the Rays last May 24, thinks he’s got that worked out now. He was getting the ball up, and he promises it won’t happen again.
Hernandez has already shown he has the propensity to evolve as a pitcher, smoothly transitioning from the flame-thrower that arrived as a teenager to a well-rounded veteran who relies on guile, movement and location as his velocity has gone down. And that evolution will continue as Hernandez tries to circumvent still-undefeated Father Time.
“When he came up, he was lighting up the gun in the high 90s with the wicked breaking ball,’’ Servais said. “He’s got more in his repertoire now, the changeup, cutting it, the curveball with different speeds and shapes to it. He’s very talented and he’s been able to do that. But almost all pitchers evolve as their career goes on, outside of Nolan Ryan.”
The sad truth is that all pitchers also hit a wall eventually, and you never quite know when.
Look at Justin Verlander, who broke in as a full-time member of the Tigers rotation in 2006, the same year Hernandez had his first full season in Seattle.
In 2014, Verlander turned in what for him was a sub-par year, putting up a 4.54 ERA and strikeout numbers far below his norm. Last year, he began the season on the disabled list with a right triceps strain. At age 33, with 2,111 innings and 34,675 pitches under his belt – square in Hernandez territory – Verlander is trying to reinvent himself.
Again, that’s not to imply that King Felix is headed for trouble in 2016. Who wants that downer on Opening Day?
After watching Hernandez all spring, Servais said, when asked if Hernandez is poised for another big year:
“I certainly hope so. I think he is. I don’t know why he wouldn’t be. But you have to do it. That’s the name of the game, you have to go out and do it. No matter what your track record is, somebody else is always trying to knock you off and earn their worth in the game, so to speak. But there’s nothing to make me believe he won’t have a great year.”
The clock is ticking, though – ceaselessly and relentlessly. And it’s high time the Mariners helped Felix Hernandez stop time, and step into the October spotlight.