Sixteen days after their season began in Japan, the Seattle Mariners finally got home Friday night. Between the official opener at the Toyko Dome and the home opener at Safeco Field, we’ve come to know more about this team than we thought we would.
We’ve learned that Chone Figgins’ career could be salvageable, and that Kyle Seager, the third baseman of the present, just might be the third baseman of the future. We’ve learned that Michael Saunders’ new swing is more evident than Ichiro Suzuki’s new stance, and that the bullpen is short on long relievers.
Most of all, we’ve learned that starting pitcher Felix Hernandez, who turned 26 years old on April 8, doesn’t throw as fast as he did when he was 23 or 24. The King’s virtuosity has never been about his velocity – the mph on his fastball wasn’t, and never will be, measured in triple digits – but there was a time Hernandez consistently delivered his power pitches in the mid-90 mph range.
The fastest pitch Hernandez threw Friday against the Oakland Athletics was clocked at 94 mph, but 91-92 was more the norm. No big deal, right? What’s a modest decrease in speed – from 94-96 to 91-93 – mean for an ace who traditionally has used his fastball to set up his swing-and-miss off-speed stuff?
Apparently the velocity dip meant something to the A’s. Despite bringing what might be baseball’s most unprepossessing lineup to Seattle – Seth Smith, the left-half of a DH platoon, was the lone Oakland batter hitting over .275 – the visitors were not flummoxed by the 2010 Cy Young Award winner.
Recently retired center fielder Mike Cameron was invited back to Safeco Field for the ceremonial first pitch, but the buzz before the home opener was around Hernandez. It’s why the Mariners jerry-rigged their rotation in Texas, where Jason Vargas replaced Hernandez as Thursday’s day-game starter in order for The King to pitch Friday night.
With pregame fireworks smoke clinging over the field, and the staccato chants of the “King’s Court” blaring from the left-field corner, Hernandez put on a show early. He struck out A’s leadoff man Jemile Weeks on three pitches in a classic Felix sequence – the 92 mph fastball setting up the 86 mph curve – and struck out Coco Crisp on four pitches before retiring Josh Reddick on a soft liner to left.
Hernandez didn’t throw a pitch taken for a ball until Yoenis Cespedes began the second inning, and when Cespedes became Oakland’s third strikeout victim, it seemed possible the crowd could witness a historic home opener.
Then Smith reached out and touched Hernandez for an opposite-field hit, and the rest of the evening turned into a grind for both Seattle’s starting pitcher and the hitters challenged to support him.
Hernandez held the A’s without a run during six of the seven innings he worked, but it was the two he gave up in the third that dropped his record to 1-1 after three starts – all against an Oakland team he should dominate.
First baseman Daric Barton, a .200 hitter batting seventh, got Hernandez into a jam with a leadoff single. One out later, shortstop Cliff Pennington, a .167 hitter, drove Barton home with a double crushed into the left-center gap. Pennington then scored on Coco Crisp’s RBI single.
Although Hernandez’s pitching line ranked as a quality start – he went seven innings, and gave up only two runs on seven hits – it was difficult to watch him without suspecting something is missing from his arsenal.
Put it this way: Hernandez was out-pitched in the 4-0 defeat by Bartolo Colon. For the second time in three starts, Oakland’s 38-year old right-hander carved up the Mariners with an ease that was as baffling as it was frustrating. Colon used to be a very good pitcher.
He’s no longer that pitcher – unless he’s facing Seattle.
Before the radiant afternoon turned into a homecoming bereft of baseball highlights, manager Eric Wedge did his best to dismiss talk about Hernadez losing the hop on his fastball.
“The velocity is right there,” insisted Wedge. “I know you’re trying to make something, but your talking about a guy who still was hitting 93 the last time and that’s pretty much what he is. He is a low 90 to mid-90s guy that pitches.
“Can he reach back and get more if he wants to? Sure. But he pitches, he uses all 5-6 of his pitches. He throws them where he wants to and when he wants to, which is as important as anything for him. I don’t have worries in regard to that.”
Wedge might not have any worries, but it should be noted that he wasn’t managing two seasons ago, when Hernandez won the Cy Young Award. Wedge’s point of reference is 2011.
For most of the rest of us, the point of reference is longer ago than that. Most of the rest of us remember when the vintage King Felix would have the A’s batters flailing away with off-balance, half-hearted swings .
Is Felix Hernandez’ diminished effectiveness a matter of concern?
How can it not be?