SURPRISE, Ariz. — After weeks of throwing on the sideline and watching from the dugout, Felix Hernandez made his much-anticipated Cactus League debut on Thursday.
Perhaps no person relished the moment of stepping on the mound in a game situation more than Hernandez, who has patiently waited while the Mariners have taken their time getting him ready for the season.
Thursday morning in the Mariners’ clubhouse, Hernandez blasted Latin hip-hop and dance music at room-shaking decibels to pump himself up, while giddily interacting with teammates.
Why the excitement?
He was finally getting to throw somewhat meaningful pitches after signing a seven-year $175 million contract at the start of spring training. Since that day, he has played catch, thrown some bullpen sessions, thrown one live batting-practice session and one simulated game. But that drawn-out process had run its course. He was ready to pitch in a game.
“Finally, huh? Now I’m part of the Seattle Mariners,” Hernandez joked.
Hernandez was good but far from perfect against the Kansas City Royals at Surprise Stadium. In two innings, he allowed one run on two hits while striking out two.
“I think it was a better debut than last year,” he said. “I felt pretty good.”
Well, maybe not statistically better because Hernandez threw three shutout innings and struck out four in his debut against the Reds last season.
But from a physical standpoint, Hernandez thought it was better.
“I looked strong from the windup; from the stretch, I was a little too quick and opening up,” he said.
From the windup, Hernandez threw a one-two-three first inning, striking out Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas.
“He changed speeds well, moved the ball in and out,” Moustakas said. “For being his first time out in spring, he looked really good.”
Hernandez was forced to go to the stretch after giving up a leadoff single to Lorenzo Cain in the second inning. On the ensuing at-bat, he missed the strike zone with his first pitches to David Lough, came back with a 3-0 strike, then left a fastball down the middle that Lough turned on, ripping a line drive off the glove of first baseman Justin Smoak and into right field.
Cain, who was running on the pitch, scored from first base.
“I’m trying to stay on (my) back leg,” Hernandez said of his issues throwing from the stretch. “I was a little too quick and opening up. I will have to work on that in my next bullpen. (session)”
His fastball speed was around 91-92 mph. A year ago, it was 89-90 mph in that first start.
But he wouldn’t listen to any talk about his velocity after the minor controversy last spring.
“Come on, what velocity (issue)?” he said. “At the end of the year, I was throwing 94 (mph). This happens all the time. I keep getting stronger and stronger.”
Pitching coach Carl Willis was pleased with what he saw.
“It was nice to see him get back out there and compete again,” Willis said. “I thought his fastball was good. Change-up was right there as it always is. He threw a couple good sliders. Most importantly, he felt good. So we’ll see him again in five days.”
Romero’s huge day
On Wednesday, Stefen Romero entered the game in the fifth inning for the Mariners and struck out twice in two at-bats. On Thursday, he had a slightly better showing. The Mariners’ reigning minor league player of the year, ripped a grand slam and a three-run homer in a 4-for-5 performance that also featured a single, a double and seven RBI.
“I was put in situations where guys in front of me got on base and produced,” said Romero, a former Oregon State standout. “Luckily, I got great pitches to hit and drove the ball.”
With the bases loaded in the fourth inning, Romero worked a 2-0 count and crushed a fastball to left field off of Guillermo Moscoso.
“I was sitting fastball and he threw me a fastball,” Romero said.
In the ninth inning, Romero took advantage of a 3-1 fastball and blasted a missile to dead-center field, carrying nearly 30 feet beyond the 410-foot sign.
“I was just trying to hit the ball hard,” Romero said. “It was my last at-bat and I was trying to get a little greedy. He made a mistake, and I got him.”
Hultzen healing quickly
Danny Hultzen is on his way back to pitching again this spring. The Mariners’ prized pitching prospect was sidelined by a mild strain in his right-hip flexor. After a few days of treatment, everything seems to be going well.
“I’m feeling good,” Hultzen said.
He played catch on Thursday.
Willis said Hultzen will throw a light bullpen session today, and if all goes well he will throw a normal bullpen session on Sunday. If that goes well, he goes back to pitching in games.
Hultzen is happy to get back to his normal routine.
“I wasn’t expecting it to be any longer than this,” Hultzen said. “I’m just glad everything has gone smoothly.”