Scott Servais didn’t just say it.
Nothing like, “Felix Hernandez, you’re the Mariners’ 2018 Opening Day starter.”
But the King is certainly back in the running.
Hernandez threw 38 pitches in his longest action of spring training – three innings with five strikeouts and a walk while allowing one run and three hits. He left his only other start four weeks ago after a comebacker struck his throwing arm.
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This start was against the Padres’ Triple-A hitters. But he seemed to think he was pretty on.
“It feels really good,” Hernandez said. “I feel physical. I feel fine and I’m happy to be back on the mound and to get back on the mound five days later.”
Servais said Hernandez is set for a Saturday start against the Cubs in Peoria. That would then give him regular four days rest before the regular-season opener against the Indians on March 29 at Safeco Field.
Hernandez has started nine consecutive Opening Days – the longest active streak in baseball.
“My conversation was he has to be very honest with us and us with him with what we’re seeing,” Servais said. “If he is able to make the Opening Day start, we’re not looking for him to go out there and throw 100 pitches. If he can get 75-80 pitches and get five really good innings and turn it over to the bullpen – we’ll see. We don’t’ want to get too far ahead of ourselves, but that’s kind of the plan looking into this thing because he’s not going to be ready to go out and throw 100 pitches. We have to be smart.
“But he looks very healthy to me.”
Granted, Hernandez has thrown just 1 1/3 innings against major league hitters this spring.
He took a line drive off of his right forearm in a hard hit off the bat of the Cubs’ Victor Caratini in the second inning of his Cactus League debut on Feb. 26.
A few inches could have made the injury much more devastating for Hernandez’s season. And he had one sharp grounder come his way in the second inning of this one.
“A little scary with the comebacker,” Hernandez said.
But for him to be back and feel healthy on Monday is a positive sign — one the Mariners will certainly take considering the rash of other injured players on the mend.
Servais seemed almost giddy.
“I thought Felix threw the ball great,” Servais said. “I was really happy with what I saw. I liked the life on his pitches, the execution of his pitches, his changeup looked good, he worked on some other things in his delivery that I thought looked excellent. About as good as it could be with it being his first time in quite a while.”
But that’s who Hernandez is, he said.
“I’m going to go out there and compete,” he said about pitching after the four-week layoff. “I just felt really good. Everything was in place, good curveball, good changeup, good command. Everything was on.”
Servais said Felix had also looked good in his bullpen sessions leading up to the start.
“And I thought his third-inning stuff was just as good as it was in the first inning – which is a good sign,” Servais said.
Servais also made a point to explain how diligent Hernandez was in his workouts and engaging with teammates in his time between starts. That it was a different side of the Mariners’ ace pitcher that they had challenged him on.
“Felix has been a much different Felix in my time here and what I’ve seen this spring training,” Servais said. “Really from Day One, we had really clear expectations coming into this camp. Unfortunately it got derailed a little bit when he took the line drive. But he hasn’t backed off his work and engaging with his teammates in the clubhouse. He’s been much more part of the group, and really just wants to be a contributor and do his part for our season.
“I think he’s in better shape, his workouts has been a little different – much more diligent and being consistent in what he’s doing. He is engaged and he wants to make a difference and have a bounce-back season.”
PAXTON DIALS IN
James Paxton was pitching, too. The left-hander was facing Double-A competition, but went six innings, allowing one run on three hits with nine strikeouts and two walks.
They key is getting his breaking pitches on point, specifically gaining some ground with his cutter.
“One more start and I’ll be ready to go,” Paxton said.
And that’s a factor when the Mariners are evaluating who to start on Opening Day between he and Hernandez. Paxton said he’s slated to throw about 95 pitches his next start, which had yet to be determined.
“And just planning on trying to dial it in a little bit more,” he said. “And trying to ramp it up toward the season here.”
Though Servais wasn’t as high on Paxton’s work Monday as he was with Hernandez’s.
“Paxton looks fine and the velocity and the stuff was all there,” Servais said. “Pax has a history of not doing great in those backfield games, but getting his pitches in – he looks fine.”
The Mariners clubhouse is looking less like an infirmary. 1B Ryon Healy appeared in his third consecutive game off of wrist surgery. And OF Ichiro Suzuki, returning from a sore right calf, alternated between minor-league fields like Healy did to maximize their plate appearances. … OF Ben Gamel (oblique) played catch on the field and headed to the batting cages in what a appears to be a good step in his recovery. He was expected to miss four-six weeks and he’s not expected to be on the Mariners’ Opening Day roster. He had tweaked the oblique during a swing in the batting cage two weeks ago.
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677