The countdown is nearly complete for the launch of Felix 2.0.
It occurs Monday at 5:10 p.m. Pacific time when the Mariners open their season by playing the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park.
In some ways, nothing has changed.
This marks the ninth straight year that Felix Hernandez is starting for the Mariners in their season opener. It is the 10th time in 11 seasons, which stands as a testament to his long-term durability as one of the game’s premier starting pitchers.
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“It’s always an honor to be the opening day starter,” he said. “I’ve done it a few times, and I like it a lot. I like the challenge. It’s still special because it’s opening day. It’s a new season. A lot of eyes watching you.”
More eyes, perhaps, than ever before.
Hernandez turns 31 later this week and is coming off a disappointing and injury-interrupted 2016 season in which he failed to reach 200 innings for the first time since 2007, when he was still a youthful player seeking to harness his gifts.
The 3.82 ERA he recorded last season was his worst since 2007 and, as was repeatedly pointed out, he’s now not so youthful. Skeptics proliferated in bleating out the same narrative: That the King was, well, no longer the King.
Too many innings for too many bad teams over too many years had taken a toll.
Even manager Scott Servais and other Mariners officials advanced the view that Hernandez had reached the point in his career where he needed to shift gears from, say, an MMA-style machismo to judo’s gentler more-cerebral approach.
Felix has never thrown a pitch in the playoffs. And it’s time.
Mariners manager Scott Servais
It wasn’t easy.
The King became the King by being the baddest dude around.
No matter. Even he saw change as necessary.
Hernandez switched to a more-rigorous offseason regimen under Iron Glenn Freeman, the same trainer who helped teammates Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano remain highly productive into their mid-30s.
All with one goal in mind.
“I’ve got to prove people wrong,” Hernandez declared when he reported to spring camp in mid-February. “I feel fine. I’m healthy. That’s the main thing.”
The Mariners are looking to end a postseason drought that extends back to 2001. By any measure, their roster appears stronger than it was a year ago when they made it to the final weekend before being eliminated from the hunt.
They got that far despite an underperforming Hernandez, but it’s hard to see them clearing the hurdle without the Return of the King.
“We have a legit No. 1 starter,” Servais said. “I talked with Felix a little bit about this in the offseason: Felix has never thrown a pitch in the playoffs. And it’s time. We have a lot of work to do to get there. He knows that as well.”
Felix Hernandez pitched 153 1/3 innings in 2016. It was the lowest total since his rookie season in 2005.
Hernandez appeared to take last year’s near-miss harder than anyone. Much harder than a similar near-miss in 2014. That year, Hernandez pitched well enough that he should have won the Cy Young Award. He did his part. Not so last year.
That sense of underperforming, and letting his teammates down, helped push Hernandez through Freeman’s workouts. The King added 17 pounds, much of it to his lower half, which is where a pitcher generates much of his power.
The difference was immediately apparent when Hernandez took to the mound.
“We’ve seen higher velocity,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “He’s been up close to 94 (mph) with his fastball. I think 93.8 is where he’s topped. His average velocity has been considerably higher than it was really at any point of last season.
“The secondary stuff has always been great. Felix looks confident. His command has been exceptional. He’s using his fastball elevation more aggressively than we have seen him use before.”
Hernandez’s increased use of the fastball, and a willingness to elevate it, points to the flip side of his new approach. He now seems willing to be the judo master by letting the hitter work against himself.
“That’s real important,” he acknowledged. “Sometimes in the past, I tried to be too nasty, and I got in trouble. I’d go from 1-2 to 3-2 by trying to make a nasty pitch, and my pitch count would get up.
“I’ve tried to pitch to contact and tried to be around the zone. Get soft contact. Quick outs. Keep my pitch count down.”
Listen close enough and you almost could hear the Mariners’ brass chorusing “Hallelujah” throughout spring training.
“He said an interesting thing (after a recent game) that says a lot about Felix’s maturity,” Servais observed. “‘I don’t have to strike everybody out.’ What (usually) happens with Felix is … he tries to strike everybody out.
“What we saw is he got ahead in the count and just threw a fastball low and away. I’ll take a fly ball to right field. That works, too. He’s starting to admit it. That’s the first step.”
That’s why the season opener represents a crucial first test.
Sometimes in the past, I tried to be too nasty, and I got in trouble. ... I’ve tried to pitch to contact and tried to be around the zone. Get soft contact. Quick outs. Keep my pitch count down.
Can Hernandez maintain his new approach against the Astros if he gives up a few hits or runs into trouble? Or will he revert back to his more-is-better approach? (Houston punished the King for 22 runs in 10 1/3 innings over the past two years.)
Another test looms when Hernandez pitches for the first time in 2017 at Safeco Field. Will he be swayed by the King’s Court roaring for a strikeout when he gets ahead in the count?
Hernandez responds to these questions with a challenging “watch me” glare. Follow up by asking what the Mariners, their fans and everyone else can expect to see this year, and his answer is immediate and forceful.
“Me, just me,” he said. “Just me pitch the way I pitch. That’s what they need to see. I’m a little different this year. I feel a little stronger. I feel much better with my legs and my mechanics.
“You can see it. Every pitch I throw is down in the zone with good break. If my mechanics are good, I’m going to be good. My fastball feels pretty good. When my fastball is right there in the zone, it makes everything better.
“I’m ready to go. I’m ready for Monday. I’m ready for the Astros.”
All systems go on Felix 2.0.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners