The world outside of Seattle cannot accept that Felix Abraham Hernandez is not bitter.
He won a Cy Young Award two years ago with 13 wins, because the Mariners’ offense was all but non-existent in his 34 starts. Last season, in 34 starts, he won 14 games – and lost 14.
Acknowledged as one of the best pitchers in baseball at age 25, Hernandez is one game over .500 in his past two seasons with Seattle, yet expresses not a whit of bitterness or angst.
“My record is just part of baseball. Baseball is weird,” Hernandez said. “The offense was trying its hardest to score runs for me. I look at the team now, I see a lot of talent. I see us going in the right direction.”
The Seattle media, by and large, have accepted Felix at his word. Mariners fans delight in his attitude.
The outside world seems suspicious.
“I’ve always said I want to stay in Seattle. You guys know it,” Hernandez told a gaggle of Mariners writers last week. “Every time someone from somewhere else interviews me, they keep asking me, ‘Do you want to be traded?’ I’m going to make a sign and put it on my locker: ‘I’m staying.’ ”
On Wednesday in the Tokyo Dome, Hernandez will make his fifth opening-day start for Seattle, and in the first four has gone 3-0 with a 1.67 earned run average and 27 strikeouts in 312/3 innings.
Each of those starts has come with an ever-changing roster around him. The same will be true of the 2012 team. Three members of the rotation he leads weren’t with Seattle to open 2011.
Felix is the foundation upon which the franchise stands, a man who will turn 26 on April 8, owns an 85-67 career record, has been a two-time All-Star.
And without question, he has been and remains the Mariners’ ace.
That means more than starting on opening day. It means devouring innings when the game is getting away, so the bullpen is fresher for the pitchers behind you in the rotation.
“Felix expects to finish every start. He loves pitching, he loves competing,” pitching coach Carl Willis said. “No matter what the situation, he wants one more inning, one more batter, one more pitch.
“He’s like most of us were in Little League, except this is the big leagues. He can dominate here like some of us did in Little League.”
In each of the past four seasons, Hernandez has pitched more than 200 innings, including 2492/3 innings in 2010.
Last season, when the team finished 67-95, Felix was 14-14 with a 3.47 ERA in 2332/3 innings. He wasn’t pleased with himself.
“I wasn’t as consistent as I wanted to be,” he said.
His response? He lost weight and gained muscle, came to camp prepared, he said, for a much better season.
“I wanted to look good,” he said, flexing his biceps.
Manager Eric Wedge remembers watching Hernandez from the Indians’ dugout when he managed Cleveland, then getting to know him last season.
“You always saw the stuff,” Wedge said. “You knew what kind of day you were in for against him. But what I’ve seen up close is how special he is. Felix wants to win, and he’s willing to work every day toward that goal.
“He’s tough. He hates coming out of games. He loves his teammates, defends them. He’s not just a leader with the pitching staff, he’s one of the leaders of the team.”
That doesn’t mean he’s always mature. In baseball, hardly anyone always is.
In the final days before the team traveled to Japan, Hernandez came across a miniature megaphone – a toy – and immediately seized it. Then, from various part of the clubhouse, hidden from catcher Miguel Olivo’s view, Felix Hernandez began a bizarre little chant.
“Oooooo-leee-vooo,” he would say through the megaphone.
High humor it may not been. It broke up the clubhouse, though, and Willis smiled.
“He’s still a kid,” Willis said of his ace. “In the best sense of the word.”
Early on in his major league career, it was the young pitcher’s emotions – and his inability to command them – that were viewed as one of his few weak spots.
If he allowed a home run in a close game, Felix might stomp around the mound and make another mistake or two before calming himself down.
“I still feel the emotions, I just control them now,” Hernandez said.
“Felix is an instinctive pitcher. He reads swings and makes adjustments to them,” Willis said. Felix knows how to pitch. He doesn’t want a lot of information about hitters – he wants them to adjust to him, he doesn’t want to adjust to them.”
Felix’s next start will be the 206th of his major league career. In 59 of those, he’s allowed one run or none while pitching seven innings or more. It is the kind of number that might fascinate him, if he knew it.
He is a husband, a father and an ace, and loves each role. Asked how long it seems he’s been in the big leagues, Hernandez laughed.
“It seems like a long, long time,” he said.