Felix in fine form during spring debut
Mariners ace back on mound for first time since contract extension
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Pitching in his first game since signing a $175 million contract extension, Mariners ace Felix Hernandez gave up one run in two innings of work Thursday against the Royals and pronounced himself stronger than a year ago as he begins his ninth Major League season.
Hernandez, 26, has been on a slower pace this spring compared to the other Seattle pitchers, but the timeframe is the same one used to get him ready for Opening Day starts in previous years.
He threw 33 pitches in Thursday's 12-2 win over the Royals, striking out two and giving up two hits with no walks.
"Finally, huh? Now I'm part of the Seattle Mariners," Hernandez said with a laugh after getting in his first official work of the spring. "I think it was a better debut than last year. I felt pretty good."
Pitching coach Carl Willis said all went perfectly as the club wanted to keep its ace under 40 pitches in his first outing.
"It's nice to see him get back out there and compete again," said Willis. "He felt great. I thought his fastball was good, his changeup was right there as it always is and he threw some good sliders as well. Most importantly, he felt good, so we'll see him again in five days."
Hernandez was throwing his fastball in the 91-92 mph range, according to MLB.com's Gameday readings, and worked in about five or six changeups as well as a few sliders.
"I felt strong from the windup," he said. "From the stretch, I was a little too quick. I'm trying to stay back on my back leg, but today I was opening up a little too much. But I got my work in and now I can work on that in my next bullpen."
Willis said having something to work on at this point is a good reminder that Hernandez does need time, like everyone else.
"He is human and he hasn't faced hitters in a game setting against an opposing club," Willis said. "So getting that first one out of the way, I think he'll be a lot more comfortable in his next one."
If all goes according to plan, Hernandez will make four more starts this spring -- most likely on March 12 against the D-backs, March 17 vs. the Rangers, March 22 vs. the Padres and March 27 vs. the Dodgers -- before taking the mound for the Mariners' regular-season opener in Oakland on April 1.
Willis wants him to work up to about 90-plus pitches in his final Cactus League start in order to be in line for 110 pitches or so on Opening Day.
Hernandez zipped through a 1-2-3 first frame against the Royals on 14 pitches, freezing shortstop Alcides Escobar on a 92-mph fastball on the corner, then striking out third baseman Mike Moustakas, who swung through a nasty changeup for strike three.
The second inning didn't go as smoothly, with speedy center fielder Lorenzo Cain leading off with a single, then scoring from first on a scorching one-out line drive double by David Lough that deflected off the glove of first baseman Justin Smoak and rolled down the line.
But Hernandez bore down and got Elliott Johnson and Johnny Giavotella on infield popouts to get out of the inning and then took a seat in the dugout for the rest of the afternoon.
"He looked about like King Felix," said Royals leadoff hitter Alex Gordon. "He's out there working for two innings or whatever. I grounded out in the first inning and he was running down to first base and I grabbed him and said, 'Just don't get hurt.'"
A year ago, Hernandez opened the spring with three innings of scoreless ball and four strikeouts against the Reds. But he insisted he felt stronger this time out and the radar readings seemed to support that after his fastball was clocked a couple ticks faster than his early outings in 2012.
Asked about his velocity issues early last year, Hernandez just scoffed.
"C'mon," he said, throwing his head back in mock indignation. "At the end of the year I was throwing 94, so it's happening all the time. I'm just getting stronger and stronger. I feel better."
Hernandez signed a seven-year, $175 million contract in the opening days of camp this spring, erasing the final two seasons of his former deal and ensuring his future in Seattle through 2019.