OAKLAND, Calif. — His usual carefree self, Felix Hernandez danced in the visitors clubhouse to his techno “house music” Sunday.
It’s fitting that Hernandez will make his season debut and first outing since landing a $175 million, seven-year contract against the Oakland Athletics.
The Seattle ace always faces them to start, or so it seems to the A’s.
“A lot,” Hernandez said with a smile. “I’ve faced the A’s a lot.”
Three times last season, in fact — first in the opening game in Tokyo, again in Seattle’s 2012 Safeco Field debut, then once more back in Oakland for the A’s home opener. The Mariners won the first two.
That’s quite the fill of King Felix. The AL West champion A’s will see Hernandez again Monday night to open the season at the Oakland Coliseum, with the pitcher fresh off the new contract from February that briefly made him baseball’s highest-paid pitcher until Detroit’s Justin Verlander topped him Friday.
“We’re used to it,” A’s third baseman Josh Donaldson said, chuckling. “If there’s a team that’s used to facing Felix, it’s us.”
Hernandez, who turns 27 on April 8, even opted to sit out the World Baseball Classic for Venezuela to focus on this season. He went 13-9 with a 3.06 ERA in 33 starts last season, two years after capturing the AL Cy Young award.
“I don’t care how many times you’ve done it. Starting on opening day never gets old,” Hernandez said. “It’s an honor, because there’s so much anticipation leading up to that game. It’s an exciting time and a fun time to be on the mound. That’s especially true against on the road against division rival, when you know the crowd will be into it.”
If the sellout crowd is anything close to comparable to that energized ballpark full of fans from last fall’s special run, Hernandez will have a hard time not taking notice.
The A’s won 94 games and became the first team in major league history to capture a division or pennant after trailing by five games with fewer than 10 to play, stunning the two-time reigning AL champion Texas Rangers on the season’s final day. Oakland then lost in the deciding Game 5 of the AL division series to Detroit.
“I think everybody’s ready. We’ve been waiting for opening day for a while now, for most of the guys here probably since the last out was made in Game 5,” Donaldson said. “Everybody was diligent in the offseason getting their all their work in, now we’re just ready for it to show.”
Hernandez will try not to allow any fanfare to throw him off on Day 1.
“I don’t do anything different, I just come to win every opening day,” Hernandez said a day ahead of his sixth opening day start and fifth in a row. “I can’t do anything different. I’ve just got to be the same guy.”
Hernandez might need to mind Yoenis Cespedes in the middle of the order. The Cuban homered in two of his final three spring training games, including a three-run drive Saturday off San Francisco starter Ryan Vogelsong in a 4-3 victory over the World Series champion Giants.
Cespedes ended spring training on a 13-for-33 run, with all six of his home runs and 13 RBIs over the final 11 games.
The six home runs, which came after Cespedes batted just .179 in his first 11 games, are the most by an A’s hitter in the spring since 2007.
“The tickets are sold. It’s going to be a great game,” Cespedes said. “Felix is really happy. He is a great player and has pitched so well. But I see this A’s team as being better than last year. We have more balance.”
Oakland sure hopes to carry over some momentum from what it accomplished in October, with a more experienced starting rotation to boot.
“I just think a lot of it has to do with confidence. Going into last year we knew that we could win but we hadn’t,” Donaldson said. “Last year, especially in the second half on, the success that we did have shows that we have a good team here and we have the talent and a good staff. We’re ready to get out there and go, and win some games.”
Typically, the pitchers are considered to be ahead of the hitters in the season’s early stage. The A’s hope they can challenge Hernandez, anyway.
“What’s new, right?” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “We had like three Day 1s with him last year. There’s good pitching in our division. He may be at the forefront of that. It’s our draw. It seems like since I’ve been here we open up against Seattle and we get him. It’s part of the deal.”
Hernandez is as eager as everybody else to get going.
“I’m really prepared. Well, finely spring training is over, it was a long one,” Hernandez said. “I feel as comfortable as I ever have going into this opening day. I trust the hitters we have and the guys playing behind me. I’m getting dialed in and ready for another season. I love playing for Seattle. I can’t wait for this season to get started.”