PEORIA, AZ There was a time that Randy Johnson set the standard for how dominant a Seattle Mariner pitcher could be.
Johnson won the first of his five Cy Young Awards with Seattle as part of his evolution from erratic hard thrower to intimidating hard thrower.
Its now the time for Felix Hernandez, who finished second in the Cy Young Award two years ago, then won it last year. If Johnson needs to be ready to give up his place in Seattle pitching lore to Felix, so be it. But the Big Unit says that time isnt now.
Johnson and Hernandez talked for a bit before Hernandezs 33-pitch simulated game Thursday morning in Seattles spring training camp.
So what did they talk about?
“Randy told me I needed to win four more Cy Youngs (to match him), Hernandez said with a smile. “And he said I needed another 4,000 strikeouts to get him.
“I said, `Yeah, Ill be there. Dont worry.
It was the kind of joking banter that is emblematic of spring training. But as it the case with all good humor, it resonates because there is a level of reality behind it.
Hernandez, who will the Mariners opening night starter in Oakland on April 1 and wont become 25 until April 8, already has the one Cy Young and 1,042 strikeouts. Johnson, who pitched for 22 big league seasons, had exactly 25 strikeouts before he turned 25.
So to say that Hernandez has a chance to do what Johnson has done isnt the stretch it would have been were we talking about virtually any other big league pitcher.
At the same time, Hernandez has a long way to go. He was asked Thursday if he can be better than he was in 2010, when he won only 13 games but led the American League in ERA (2.27, innings pitched (249.2), quality starts (30),opponents batting average (.212) and finished second by the Angels Jared Weaver in strikeouts by one with 232.
But when he was asked if he could be better in 2011, Hernandez didnt even blink when he said yes.
“I think I can be better, he said. “You have to get better every year. Well see.
The fact is that no matter how good a pitcher is, batters learn to adjust and adapt. They are alert for any ways hell tip his pitches. Theyll pick up if the fastball has lost a little jump. To keep ahead of the game, pitchers need to keep the same level of stuff and add a bit of unpredictability to the mix.
For Hernandez, that may mean throwing the fastball less. Or more; it works both ways. He may need to show the curve in different counts. Ditto the changeup. Whatever he does, hell be able to keep it in his back pocket until the opener. As long as he has command of his pitches, now hell be able to go to them when he needs to in his projected 34 or 35 starts in the regular season.
And on Thursday, there was every evidence that Hernandez is well on his way to having that command once again this season. He didnt struggle even for a bit in the simulated game, his first competition against live hitters since last year. According to pitching coach Carl Willis, hell start against San Francisco Tuesday.
“Its been a while, Hernandez said. “I felt great. Im ready. Im feeling so good man. I was throwing strikes, the ball was in the bottom of the zone, (and) the breaking ball was good. The changeup was alright.
“Everything looked good.