When Felix Hernandez made his return to the mound Saturday night after missing more than three months to injury, he wore King Felix on the back of his jersey. That’s because all players, per an MLB marketing gimmick, were wearing nicknames for the weekend. Wearing King Felix made sense because of his amazing 15-year career with the Mariners, even if the sentiment behind it no longer seemed relevant.
Hernandez began his major league career here at 19 in 2005 and went on to win a Cy Young Award in 2010 (and also finish second twice), make six All-Star Games and throw the only perfect game in Seattle history in 2012. He also has more than 2,500 strikeouts and has twice led the American League in ERA. He might be the best pitcher in Seattle history, or at least tied with Hall of Famer Randy Johnson.
Unfortunately, his career with the Mariners most likely ends in September.
Hernandez is 33. These days, few teams want players after they turn 30 (even though some remain good into their 40s). He also has not pitched as well in recent years, with his ERA rising from a league-best 2.14 in 2014 to 3.53 in 2015, 3.82 in 2016, 4.36 in 2017, 5.55 in 2018 and 6.09 so far this season. He also lost more games than he won last season (8-14) and this year (1-4).
The velocity and command of his pitches have declined, as have his games and innings pitched.
Hernandez also has had injuries that have helped reduce his innings from a career high of 249.2, and more than 200 in seven other seasons, to 86.2 in 2017 and 44.1 so far this season. Early on, he strained a lat muscle in his right shoulder, which put him on the disabled list from May 12 until Saturday.
“It’s been a bump in the road,’’ he said Friday of the recent injury. “But you know what, it’s just part of your career and you have to live with it . . .
“Injuries are part of your body and your career. It’s been frustrating. But finally, I’ll be back, and hopefully, I’ll be fine for the rest of the year.’’
Manager Scott Servais said at the end of the 2016 season, “Where he’s at in his career, he’s going to have to make a few adjustments in the off-season and come into spring training in a little better shape and more urgency.’’
But Servais was more positive about him Friday, the day before the long-awaited resumption of his season.
“I do know one thing about Felix. When he takes the mound he’s a super, super competitor,’’ Servais said. “It will be a little different crowd than we usually get because the Blue Jays are here. But they will be fired up in the stands.’’
Indeed. Hernandez received a standing ovation when he took the mound, even though most in the crowd were Blue Jays fans. The King’s Court section devoted to him in the left field corner was full as well.
While his first pitch was nearly a home run, caught at the wall by rookie CF Jake Fraley, Hernandez retired the first six batters with just 16 pitches. In the third inning, he gave up home runs to Teoscar Hernandez and Bo Bichette to tie at 2. He also walked a batter and hit Vlad Guerrero Jr. with a pitch.
Yet he held the Jays scoreless in the fourth and fifth innings, and also struck out four to pass Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson for 37th place on the career strikeouts lists with 2,505. With two outs in the sixth inning, after 88 pitches and leading 5-2, Servais pulled him, allowing another standing ovation from the crowd of 34,950.
“That’s a heck of an outing, a heck of a way to get back on the field,” Servais told reporters. “I’m really happy for him.
“People want to write him off and everything else, but when the bell rings, and if he’s got enough in the tank to go out there and compete, he does a heck of a job. Too bad we didn’t get him the win tonight.”
Said Hernandez: “That was fun. Finally, I’m back on the mound.”
As has been the case so many times in his career, he had little offensive support. This time the bullpen betrayed him too, giving up five runs in the seventh and eighth innings for a 7-5 defeat (box). But at least he didn’t receive the loss.
It wasn’t much of a return on the $27 million Hernandez is owed this year — the Mariners will have paid him about $217 million for his Seattle career — but the fact that he pitched well was heartening to a fan base prepared to cringe following another potentially dismal outing.
No one, including Hernandez, can tell which of his remaining starts will be his final one. But all realize the season is his last in Seattle, where general manager Jerry Dipoto has been getting rid of most of his expensive – and often most popular — veteran players in an effort to acquire younger, cheaper talent that can be difference-makers, as Hernandez once was.
“I think this is my last year (here),’’ Hernandez said. “I’m going to keep pitching. Hopefully, for sure. We’ll see. This has been a little rough this past year. I’ve been hurt for three months of the year, and we’ll see what happens next year.’’
The Mariners, with a staff ERA of 5.08 while using a ridiculous 40 pitchers, definitely need improved pitching. Hernandez needs another team to give him a chance.
“As long as I can get people out,’’ he said. “If I can get people out, I can still pitch.’’