OAKLAND — The Mariners, it seems, are forever a team in flux, plagued by worrisome questions that will determine the efficacy of this laborious rebuild.
Let’s be real: It could go either way. I don’t have the space right now to list all the players who need to step forward for the plan to coalesce, nor does anyone but the blindly faithful have the temerity to declare that they will.
And then there is Felix Hernandez, a rock of stability amid the uncertainty — the Mariners’ one sure thing as they embark on what should be a wild ride of a season.
Monday, we were reminded anew what a joy it is to watch a pitcher at the top of his game, combining the savvy of a veteran with the smoke of a young stud. That’s because Hernandez, who broke in eight years ago yet turns a mere 27 next week, is both.
In that remarkable press conference in February after signing his seven-year, $175-million contract, Hernandez vowed that he would never let us down. He said he would always do his best — “better than his best.”
On Monday, in a 2-0 season-opening win, his best was plenty good enough. Hey, Hernandez doesn’t ask for much — just give him a run, two if you’re feeling particularly generous. The Mariners graciously give him a pair, and he made them stand up with 7-2/3 shutout innings, to the unbridled joy of 15,376 fans watching him in larger-than-life fashion on the new video screen at Safeco Field.
“I knew people in Seattle were watching the game, so I had to do a good job,” he said. “I saw a couple of pictures on Twitter. It was crazy. That’s why I had to do something good.”
Hernandez is 92-23 in his career when receiving at least two runs of support. But for these Mariners, striving to find their way, Hernandez means much more than just the performance on any given night.
He has become, of course, the undeniable face of the franchise, and the fact that his face was streaming with tears on that podium as he professed his undying love for Seattle, his family, his teammates, the fans, the stadium workers, even the media, made him all the more endearing.
In fact, I believe the Hernandez signing — more to the point, his heartfelt reaction to it — may have marked a turning point in the unrelenting negativity that has plagued this franchise for years. If King Felix believed in the Mariners so deeply, well, maybe it was OK to buy in just a wee bit.
In the Mariners’ clubhouse, Hernandez is the centerpiece of the ethos that manager Eric Wedge is trying to build. His performance on a night when danger lurked around every corner was Exhibit A.
“That was one hell of an environment here tonight,” Wedge said. “For all of our guys to work through that and play baseball the way we played — Felix led the way. He’s been in that environment multiple times and he really set the tone for us.”
In talking to three players about Hernandez on Monday, the same word came up — fierce. You can see that emotion manifest itself with each primal scream and furious fist pump after escaping from a rally, as when Hernandez ended the sixth by striking out John Jaso (whom earlier in the night he had present with a Rolex watch in appreciation of catching his perfect game).
“He just ain’t ever going to give in,” is how Robert Andino summed it up.
It was a 10-pitch battle with Jaso, who fouled off numerous pitches and worked the count full. Catcher Jesus Montero walked to the mound and asked Hernandez what he wanted to throw. Hernandez threw the question back at him.
“Dude, best pitch,” Montero replied. “Come on, changeup. Let’s do it.”
Jaso went down, and Hernandez exulted over another crisis averted.
More of that fire came pouring out of Hernandez after he walked Eric Sogard on a 3-2 curve with two outs in the eighth, his final pitch of the game. Hernandez did not disguise his frustration over an out he felt he let inexcusably slip away.
“You’d be dumb not to look up to him,” said rookie starter Brandon Maurer, bubbling with nervous energy on his first major-league day. “Just kind of watching his routine and what he does on the mound to get that attitude and fierceness.”
Raul Ibanez was there when Hernandez the phenom arrived in the majors at age 19, fueled by hype and hyper-promise. And now Ibanez is back to admire the fully formed ace.
“The biggest compliment, and the highest compliment, I can give Felix is he’s still the same exact person he was when he first got called up,” Ibanez said. “Great kid, hard working, humble, and a fierce competitor on the mound. So even when you play against him, as nasty as he is, you love competing against him.”
“You want to see a guy like that on the mound. You know every time you’re playing behind him, he’s all in on every pitch, and he wants it every time. To be honest, there’s a lot of guys with great stuff, and he has great stuff. But that’s the intangible that makes him great.”
In a year that will be six months of tension, inevitably filled with youthful indiscretions, the Mariners will thrive on Hernandez’s tangibles and intangibles.
Every five days, they get to watch greatness. It started Monday.