SURPRISE, Ariz. — It takes some doing to upstage Felix Hernandez, but Mariners hitting prospect Stefen Romero managed to pull it off on Thursday.
While Hernandez was making a solid Cactus League debut, Romero went on a power rampage to lead a Mariners split squad to a 12-2 win over the previously unbeaten Kansas City Royals.
Romero, the Mariners’ minor-league player of the year last season, went 4 for 5 with a grand slam, a three-run homer, a double, seven runs batted in and four runs scored.
Manager Eric Wedge was in Phoenix with the other split squad for a game against Oakland, a 7-3 loss. But rest assured the manager will get a vivid accounting of Romero’s outing.
“It’s all word-of-mouth,” Romero said. “It will get back to him.”
The 24-year-old Romero was already on the Mariners’ radar after hitting a combined .352 last season in 116 games with Class A High Desert and AA Jackson, with 64 extra-base hits (34 doubles, seven triples and 23 homers) and 101 runs batted in. And now he’s at .500 (7 for 14) this spring.
“I was put in situations where guys in front of me got on base, produced, and luckily I got great pitches to hit and drove the ball well today,” said Romero, primarily a second baseman but capable of playing third and the outfield.
His grand slam came in the fourth inning off Guillermo Moscoso.
“I wasn’t trying to hit on the ground,” Romero said. “I was trying to get up in the air somewhere in the outfield. He got behind in the count 2-0 real quick. I was sitting fastball and luckily he threw me a fastball and I put a good swing on it.”
Romero’s next homer came in the ninth off Anthony Ortega and went deep into the grassy area behind the center-field wall.
“It was my last at-bat and I got a little greedy,” Romero said. “I was just trying to hit the ball hard somewhere. He made a mistake and I got it.”
Casper Wells drove in four runs with a double and three-run homer, and has nine RBI in his past two games. The Royals had been 11-0-1 this spring.
Iwakuma looks sharp on mound
Hisashi Iwakuma followed Hernandez and worked three strong innings, holding Kansas City scoreless on one hit. He said he is far ahead of where he was at this time last spring.
“I feel a lot stronger this year,” Iwakuma said through interpreter Antony Suzuki. “I came prepared. Last year was a little different story for me. This year, I know I’m in the starting rotation. I started a lot earlier than where I was last year. That helped me a lot.”
Iwakuma said he felt “great” in his outing.
“I think I’m at 70 percent now,” he said. “My fastball I’m able to locate down in the strike zone, which is a good sign. My breaking ball could be sharper. That’s what I look forward to working on from now until the end of spring training.”
Said Willis of Iwakuma: “He’s stronger, he’s pitching with a lot of confidence. We saw so many ground balls today, and a good curveball as well.”
Hultzen feeling better
Left-handed pitching prospect Danny Hultzen says he’s feeling much better since being shut down Monday by a mild strain of his right hip flexor.
Hultzen played catch off a mound Thursday. Willis said the plan is for him to have a light bullpen session Friday.
“If that goes well, we’ll give him a day, then a normal pen the following day, then transition him back in a game. He’s much better.”
Hultzen has been undergoing treatment since being hurt during the pitchers’ early-morning conditioning workout. The Mariners felt all long the injury was not serious and that Hultzen could be back in a week or so.
“I wasn’t expecting it to be any longer than this,” Hultzen said. “I’m just glad everything’s gone smoothly.”
In two outings this spring, Hultzen has worked three scoreless innings, giving up just one hit while striking out six.