PEORIA, Ariz. – Nothing Felix Hernandez did last year – not the 19 wins, the 2.49 earned run average, the 2382/3 innings – was a surprise, even though he’d never pitched as well in a full season before.
On his first day of spring training and his first visit to the mound since the final game of 2009, Hernandez said the Seattle Mariners allowed him to be his best by doing the simplest thing possible.
“They let me go last year,” Hernandez said. “I did what I thought I could always do, pitch deep into games, throw a lot of innings. They gave me the opportunity.”
After being cautiously brought along since his 2005 debut, the Mariners watched Hernandez do far more in 2009, when he finished second in the American League Cy Young Award voting, became an All-Star for the first time and …
And he got rich with a five-year, $78 million contract.
“That’s going to be a challenge for Felix,” manager Don Wakamatsu said. “He needs to be the same guy he was a year ago, know that he’s got no more responsibility than he had before. You sign a big contract, sometimes you think you have to do a lot more.”
Hernandez insists he hasn’t changed.
“I didn’t do much different this offseason, maybe worked my body a little more, worked on my strength,” Hernandez said. “My body fat was down, but ‘Wak’ said it was just because I’d finally lost my baby fat.
“I wasn’t any more tired at the end of 2009 than I was after 2008. I threw a lot of innings, but I wanted to throw them. That’s my job.”
Hernandez, who turned 23 last April, wasn’t entirely unleashed. There were games when he was lifted after the seventh or eighth inning – by design. Wakamatsu and pitching coach Rick Adair picked their spots, but they tried to save an inning or two of wear and tear.
“You look at a lot of factors,” Adair said. “Every start is a different situation. How many pitches did he throw last time out? Were they easy pitches, or was he working hard all game? Is there an off day coming up? How rested is the bullpen? You don’t set a number and try to hit it with innings, you look at each game as you go.”
Asked about adding innings this season, Hernandez smiled.
“I want to do the same thing, get deep into every game, save the bullpen, give us the chance to win,” he said.
Someone asked if he could envision himself pitching 300 innings – like a Nolan Ryan.
“He pitched every third day, I think,” Felix said, laughing. “I don’t see me doing that.”
No, but if he wants to see how to work more innings, all he needs to do is look at new teammate Cliff Lee, who threw 231 regular-season innings in ’09 – then another 40 innings in the postseason.
“Felix and Cliff Lee are both competitive guys, they both work hard, and I think they’ll feed off one another,” Wakamatsu said. “They’ll watch each other, and guys like Erik Bedard and Ryan Rowland-Smith will be watching both of them.”
On Wednesday, Hernandez was there to be seen, throwing his first bullpen session.
“It felt like the first time I’d thrown on the mound in two years,” he said. “I’ve thrown, but not from a mound – not since my last start of the year last season. It felt like my first bullpen (session).
“I threw fastballs and change-ups, tried to keep everything down, tried to throw strikes.”
Did he have pinpoint control?
“No, no,” Hernandez said, laughing. “But it was a good first day.”
Jack Hannahan and Ryan Garko are in camp ahead of other position players because they’re working out with the catchers. “I’m the emergency backup,” Hannahan said. “They want me to go through the drills, get comfortable back there. I’m not sure how much they’ll use me, or if they will, but it’s good to get a little work just in case.” … Ryan Feierabend, the 22-year-old left-hander who had “Tommy John” ligament-replacement surgery last March, is in camp and throwing again. He’ll likely start the season in Tacoma. … Former Mariners catcher Dan Wilson will be in camp for a few days beginning March 10, helping coach Roger Hansen work with the catchers. … Quote of the day, from rookie catcher Steven Baron, who worked out with Alex Rodriguez this winter and visited A-Rod’s home batting cage: “It had air conditioning, a fridge and a couple of TVs. I could have lived there.” … Shawn White, whose ’09 season was cut short because of shoulder problems, threw his first bullpen session and didn’t hold back. “I let a few pitches go and felt great,” he said. “With me, mechanics is the most important thing, both for my shoulder and my pitching.”