Felix Hernandez has had one mission in mind all along: Get back to the major leagues as quickly as possible.
Needless to say, his return to Triple-A Tacoma on Friday after an 11-year absence wasn’t exactly the last stop of a delightful reunion tour.
But King Felix did was King Felix does — he showed off that golden arm in front of a sellout crowd at Cheney Stadium.
In his final tune-up start before returning to the Mariners, Hernandez pitched well into the sixth inning in the Rainiers’ 4-1 victory over Colorado Springs.
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The organization’s ace pitcher gave up one run — a solo homer to good friend and Venezuelan countryman Manny Pina in the fourth inning — while striking out seven in an efficient 75-pitch effort.
“I feel really good. It was definitely way better than it was in (his rehab start Sunday) in Everett,” said Hernandez, just outside the Rainiers clubhouse right after leaving the game.
“A better mound (in Tacoma), better mechanics — everything was better. Everything was working. I am ready to go.”
Asked if he felt ready to return to Seattle on Wednesday, King Felix gave a self-assured nod.
“I will be back on (July) 20th, for sure,” he said.
But first, he was back in Tacoma — again — in what easily was the biggest superstar appearance at Cheney Stadium since Ken Griffey Jr. made one rehabilitation start in 1995.
Hernandez was 18 when he made the Rainiers’ roster in 2005. He debuted on his 19th birthday at Fresno, going six innings without allowing an earned run.
He ended up making 19 appearances for Tacoma, 14 of them starts, going 9-4 with a 2.25 earned-run average. In his 88 innings, he had 100 strikeouts while giving up three home runs.
On Friday, he arrived back at Cheney Stadium just past 5:15 p.m. Escorted by clubhouse attendant Chris DeWitt and Mariners’ assistant athletic trainer Matt Toth, he walked across the infield toward the Rainiers clubhouse.
“(The ballpark) is way different than it was 11 years ago,” Hernandez said.
At 6:30 p.m., Hernandez came out of the home clubhouse in the Rainiers’ red uniform, and made his way to the left field corner for long toss.
After a warm-up bullpen session underneath the left field party deck, Hernandez walked back toward the dugout to a big ovation.
It was a Colorado Springs lineup with a blend of major league experience (Josmil Pinto, Eric Young Jr.) and up-and-coming elite talent (Orlando Arcia, Keon Broxton).
Hernandez’s lone mistake was an 0-2 inside fastball to Pina, who knocked it over the left-center wall.
“He made a good swing,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez gave up a leadoff double to Broxton in the fifth, but got three groundouts to get out of the inning.
“He looked like the Felix of old today,” Rainiers manager Pat Listach said. “He has the really good changeup working. He was locating his fastball. He threw his breaking ball over when he needed to.”
Hernandez got the victory after Tyler Smith gave Tacoma the lead for good with his two-run homer off Wily Peralta in the fifth.
The original plan was for Hernandez to pitch five innings Friday, but he came out for the sixth after 64 pitches.
He got two outs. With Pina on deck, Listach came out to get Hernandez after 75 pitches.
“When I went out there to take him out, I … knew he was going to fight me to face one more batter, so I knew I better call to the bullpen before I got there,” Listach said.
Rainiers players all came into the infield to give Hernandez a handshake as he left. The “King” tipped his cap to the loud crowd.
“I am happy to be back up there (in Seattle) … to help them win,” Hernandez said.
FURBUSH OK AFTER hit by a LINER
As soon as Charlie Furbush came to the dugout after Kyle Wren’s line drive hit him squarely in the back Thursday, Listach asked the reliever where he was hit.
Third baseman Patrick Kivlehan intervened to point out the mark the baseball left on Furbush’s jersey.
“And Charlie goes, ‘Yeah that is it,’ ” said Listach, adding that Furbush was in obvious discomfort.
Listach said Furbush (shoulder) is fine, and will be back in Tacoma on Saturday ready to pitch.
SARDINAS’ NEW POSITION
On direct order from Mariners manager Scott Servais, utility man Luis Sardinas is now playing some outfield for the Rainiers.
He made his first career start in right field Friday night.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I didn’t know he would be that good,” Listach said. “His jumps have been good, and he makes the plays look easy. Some of the guys who are out there every day make it look harder than he does.”
Things will return closer to normal Saturday with no Hernandez around. Right-hander Jarrett Grube (0-1, 4.87 ERA) will pitch for the Rainiers in the third game of the series. Right-hander Aaron Wilkerson (0-0, 0.00) will start for the Sky Sox. First pitch is at 7:05 p.m. All action can be heard on 850-AM.