PEORIA, Ariz. – Felix Hernandez no longer lives year-round in Seattle, his offseason home during most of his 13 years with the Mariners. The rainy winters finally drove him to the warm comforts of Miami.
However, Hernandez’s desire to bring the playoffs to the only major league home he has known remains just as intense.
When the Buffalo Bills squeaked into the playoffs on the last day of the NFL season, the Mariners’ 16-year postseason drought went from the longest in baseball to the longest in major American pro sports. Yes, even the Cleveland Browns can boast of a more recent playoff appearance.
The topic comes up regularly in the Great Northwest, and as the Mariners’ elder statesman – even though he’s six weeks shy of turning 32 – Hernandez takes that failure to heart.
That’s fine with the Seattle brass, because without him returning to form the club has little chance of ending its stretch of futility.
“If he gives us 30 starts, we’re in great shape as a team,’’ manager Scott Servais said. “The secondary pitches, the weapons, I really like our chances to get in the playoffs if he’s able to do that.’’
A Cy Young Award winner, six-time All-Star and the author of a perfect game, King Felix has long reigned as the ace of Seattle’s staff. But he didn’t reach that exalted level over the last two seasons, when calf and shoulder injuries and a downturn in his fastball velocity appeared to signal the beginning of his decline.
After starting at least 30 games for 10 years in a row, Hernandez made 25 and 16 appearances, respectively, in 2016 and ’17, his ERA swelling to 3.82 and 4.36. Not coincidentally, a fastball that once touched triple digits slowed down to 91-92 mph.
Despite his relative youth, Hernandez has thrown more than 2,500 career innings, so it’s fair to wonder about the toll such a workload has taken on a pitcher who broke into the majors at 19.
But you won’t get Hernandez to buy into that notion, as he proclaims there’s plenty of high-quality baseball left in him.
“I’m still Felix Hernandez. I’m still King Felix,’’ he said in Spanish. “If I’m healthy, I know I can help this team win a lot of games.’’
The calf injury that sidelined Hernandez for nearly two months in 2016 seemed more like a freak occurrence, but last year he spent two extended stints on the disabled list – totaling 92 games – with shoulder woes.
Hernandez said his efforts to get stronger and reshape his body in the 2016-17 offseason may have backfired.
“I think I developed too much muscle and the arm didn’t have enough flexibility, and supposedly that’s why I got hurt,’’ Hernandez said. “I was stronger in the upper body, but that’s not essential for a pitcher. I felt robotic. I couldn’t repeat my delivery.’’
His command wasn’t sharp, and Hernandez became much more vulnerable to the longball, surrendering an average of 1.8 homers per nine innings, more than twice his career mark of 0.8.
Servais said Hernandez nibbled too much and often fell behind in the count, forcing him to come over the middle of the plate and paying the price.
After focusing his offseason workouts on shedding fat instead of adding muscle, Hernandez says he feels fully healthy this spring. He also tinkered with a cutter while working out in Miami with veteran pitcher Anibal Sanchez, a fellow native of Venezuela. If effective, the pitch would give him another weapon in addition to his outstanding changeup and curveball, plus a slider he uses on occasion.
Hernandez acknowledges his fastball doesn’t have the same zip it used to, but points out he no longer overpowered hitters in 2014 – when his 2.14 ERA led the American League – or in 2015, when he went 18-9 with a 3.53 ERA. In those years his heater sat at 93-94 mph.
“My style doesn’t change because I still have the same pitches, and they’re pretty good pitches,’’ Hernandez said. “The only thing is my fastball is not quite as fast.’’
Those who see him regularly say Hernandez’s competitiveness has not diminished, and the Mariners will need every bit of it if they’re going to reach October. They’re facing fierce competition in an AL West that features the defending World Series champion Houston Astros and the much-improved Los Angeles Angels.
Seattle has boosted an already-solid lineup with the addition of leadoff hitter Dee Gordon and designated hitter Ryon Healy, once he returns from hand surgery in a month or so. But the starting corps, which ranked ninth in the league with a 4.70 ERA last season, remains a question mark.
Talented left-hander James Paxton has yet to make more than 24 starts in his five seasons, and No. 3 starter Mike Leake – who looked sharp after being acquired in an Aug. 30 trade – is coming off back-to-back losing seasons. After that the likes of Erasmo Ramirez, Marco Gonzales, Ariel Miranda and Andrew Moore are battling for the last two rotation spots.
“I love our offense. I think our bullpen is deeper than it’s ever been since I’ve been here,’’ Servais said. “The starting pitching, we’ve got to have a few guys step up there. We’re probably one of many teams that would say the same thing.’’
Few have a pitcher with Hernandez’s resume, but that matters less than what he can give the Mariners this year. Shortstop Jean Segura, who joined the club in a trade before last season, is eager to see the dominant Hernandez he faced in August 2013, when Segura was with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Commanding all his pitches beautifully, Hernandez threw eight innings of four-hit ball as the Mariners prevailed 2-0. Segura singled once in the only three at-bats he’s ever had against him.
“He had already made his name in the big leagues, and not just because of his talent but also because he’s a warrior on the mound,’’ Segura said. “If we have a healthy Felix, along with Paxton, Leake and some of the other guys we have, we can make it to the playoffs.’’
Nothing would be more pleasing for the Mariners and their decorated ace.