The erstwhile ace has struggled this year, but with his team in first place in the AL West, Hernandez is determined to be a key player in a possible run to the playoffs.
The team wanted it.
You tell a group of players that their pitcher will allow just one run and five hits through eight innings, and they’ll be happy regardless of who they’re going up against.
The crowd appreciated it.
You tell a group of fans that the starter will strike out seven and keep their team competitive all afternoon, and they’ll be content with every cent they spent on those tickets.
As for Felix Hernandez? As for the most accomplished pitcher in Mariners history? As for the man who’s been sinking while the rest of his team has been soaring?
He didn’t just want or appreciate that outing Sunday — he needed it.
It’s easy to look at a guy in the midst of a five-year, $135 million contract extension and decide his woes between the lines don’t warrant sympathy. But cash is rarely the sole motivation for athletes who rise to the top of their sports.
Hernandez’s competitive spirit is something M’s manager Scott Servais underscores repeatedly. So you can understand the frustration Felix experienced while spending the first third of the season as the weakest member of the starting rotation.
This hasn’t just been a bad year for the King’s standards, it’s been a bad year for any MLB pitcher’s standards. Without that Cy Young and six-time All-Star résumé, Hernandez’s 5.83 ERA before Sunday likely would have landed him in Tacoma.
The most disheartening part was that Felix had finally been given a chance to contribute to a playoff-caliber team, but he had instead become the pitcher Most Likely to End a Winning Streak. Then came Sunday, when he relocated his scepter in the Mariners’ 2-1 win over the Rays.
“The way we’re playing, I just want to be me, the pitcher I am,” Hernandez said. “I’m trying to go out there and compete every five days because we’ve got a pretty good team with a chance to go to the playoffs.”
Fourteen years into his celebrated career, Hernandez has yet to play in the postseason. Regardless of his sometimes peerless contributions, the Mariners never did their part to get him to a 163rd game. So as he found himself in a role reversal — as the guy failing to pull his weight — the oft-prideful Hernandez admitted he needed help.
After allowing five runs in five innings against Texas Tuesday — marking the third time in five games he’d allowed at least five runs in less than six innings — Felix said he was going to turn himself over to pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. for a reclamation of sorts.
So Mel tried to shore up some mechanical issues within Felix’s delivery, which has been responsible for command inconsistencies. But just as significantly, he tweaked Hernandez’s pregame routine in hopes of alleviating the first-inning headaches that have plagued him all season, and had him pitch off a mound instead of flat ground during his bullpen sessions between starts.
It’s impossible to know if these changes were the impetus for a breakthrough, but they might have helped wake him up. Because in Hernandez, Stottlemyre suddenly sees a player with renewed focus.
“He had a sense of urgency in his pregame warm-up and I saw it; it was a little different than the past, a little more intense,” Stottlemyre said. “I know that it’s bothered him. He’s not happy how he’s been pitching, but I saw the energy in his body in this tight game and he stepped up. He competed his (behind) off.”
That competitiveness was most on display in the fifth inning, when Hernandez maneuvered his way out of a one-out, bases-loaded situation by striking Joey Wendle out and getting Matt Duffy to hit a ground ball right to him. He may not be the guy who can blaze 97 mph fastballs by his foes anymore, but he still has enough off-speed dexterity to embarrass anyone who steps in the batter’s box.
That’s what the Mariners are going to need from him. That’s what a team that just took sole possession of first place in the American League West will require from the venerated veteran.
Sunday, Servais said he thinks Hernandez’s struggles have weighed heavily on him this year. He knows Felix has long wanted to be a key contributor to a playoff-caliber squad.
Now it appears he is getting that chance. And based on the work he is putting in, it doesn’t seem like a chance he is willing to blow.