Sunday, April 3, 2016

Felix the torchbearer of Opening Day starts

For Felix Hernandez, pitching on Opening Day has become a part of his annual routine. No active pitcher in the Major Leagues can match what will be his eighth straight opener for the Mariners, and only seven hurlers in history have made more Opening Day starts in a row.
That's an impressive list, topped by Jack Morris with a record 14 consecutive openers to his name from 1980-93. Robin Roberts and Tom Seaver did it 12 times, Steve Carlton and Roy Halladay 10 each and Bob Gibson and Randy Johnson opened nine straight seasons for their teams.
Hernandez, who won't turn 30 until four days after he faces the Rangers in Monday's opener at 1:05 p.m. PT in Arlington, would be lining up for his 10th straight now had the Mariners not opted to open with Erik Bedard in 2008. As it stands, Hernandez has pitched in eight of the last nine season openers for Seattle, and the Mariners have won every one of those games.
Hernandez is a remarkable 6-0 with a 1.49 ERA in his eight Opening Day outings. But here's the rub: Despite all his initial success, the Mariners have never made the playoffs in Hernandez's 11 seasons with the club. And that is certainly not lost on first-year manager Scott Servais.
"Felix has never thrown a pitch in the playoffs. And it's time," Servais said. "We have a lot of work to do to get there and he knows that as well, but for a player to have that kind of career and not pitch in the playoffs yet, it's up to us to get the pieces around him. And it's up to him to pull a few guys along with him. It's going to be a joint effort."
In other words, the Mariners know it's more important how they finish this season than how they start. But it certainly doesn't hurt to open with an ace like Hernandez toeing the rubber in Texas.
Hernandez, who went 18-9 with a 3.53 ERA last year while racking up his 10th straight season with 190-plus innings, no longer is the flamethrower of his youth. His fastball has hovered in the 90-91 mph range the last few years, but he complements that with what is widely regarded as the game's most wicked changeup, a nasty curve and a quality sinker and slider.
The Venezuelan native has learned his craft well.
"There are a lot of guys that have played in this league a long time that have great stuff," Servais said. "And then there are the guys that have good stuff and really know how to pitch. He has both those things."
Veteran Chris Iannetta, who signed as a free agent with Seattle and will catch the majority of games this season, is just getting to understand his new ace.
"He knows what he wants to do, that's the best part of it," Iannetta said. "He's a guy out there with a clue of what's going on and how he wants to attack guys. And then you get in the same rhythm as him and you add your input here and there and it's fun."
Hernandez, who has four seasons remaining on his seven-year, $175 million deal, went through his typical spring this year. His results weren't overpowering. He finished with a 4.11 ERA in four Cactus League starts, then acknowledged that he takes little out of the competition in Arizona other than getting his work in and building his arm for Opening Day.
"It's different [when the regular season begins]," he said. "You've got more adrenaline, more concentration. Pitching on Opening Day means a lot. It's a new season, a lot of eyes are on you, so it's fun."
But what would be a lot more fun? Yes, finishing the season in the playoffs. Pitching at Safeco Field in postseason games. Unveiling King's Court to a national audience in October.
Hernandez isn't making bold proclamations about this being the year. He's been down that road too many times. But he's heard Servais say it's time for him to pitch in the postseason, and he's not about to disagree.
"That's our goal here," he said. "Everybody here thinks it's playoff time. We just need to play together and compete every game."
And that starts Monday, with the King once again leading the charge.

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