With two months remaining in the season, a question that has quietly lingered since May is getting louder — has Felix Hernandez already pitched his final game in a Seattle Mariners uniform?
The former ace, in the final year of his contract with the Mariners, was placed on the injured list May 12 with what was eventually diagnosed as a Grade 1 lat strain. His throwing activities were limited for the several weeks that followed.
Hernandez recovered enough to begin a rehab assignment with Triple-A Tacoma midway through June, but was removed earlier than expected his only start with shoulder fatigue, after throwing just 31 pitches.
“It wasn’t ideal,” Hernandez said. “I wouldn’t plan it like that.”
Thursday afternoon, the former Seattle ace returned to the mound at T-Mobile Park, throwing 22 pitches in a round of live BP. He said he was throwing all of his pitches during the session, and felt physically fine. He hoped this latest activity would lead to another rehab assignment, possibly beginning early next week.
Mariners manager Scott Servais said Hernandez might need more work before he is sent out on assignment with one of Seattle’s minor league affiliates.
Servais agreed Hernandez looked healthy, and wasn’t laboring to get pitches across the plate as he threw to hitters. However, he lacked consistent command. Servais said the best way to describe the session was “rusty.”
“It wasn’t the smoothest I’ve seen him, where the ball was jumping out of his hand,” Servais said. “He’s got a ways to go. ... The command was off a little bit. He hasn’t pitched in forever, and it’s the first time he had hitters in there. I don’t want to put him out somewhere and have a setback.
“You’ve got to feel your legs under you, and have an idea of where the ball’s going. He just looked like a guy who hadn’t been out there in a long, long time.”
Should Hernandez begin a rehab assignment in the next week or two — and return sometime in August without any more setbacks — he’s still only looking at a handful of potential starts before the end of the season. If the process is slower, it brings back the question of whether Hernandez will return to the Mariners at all.
“I certainly hope so,” Servais said. “But, we’ll see. A lot will be dictated on how the rehab assignment goes, and how he does, and how he feels.”
Hernandez said he came to a realization in the past month that all of the innings he’s put on his arm in 15 seasons have likely caused the slower return, and the shoulder fatigue, while with Tacoma.
But, he’s resolved to return at some point this season — if for nothing else than an abbreviated audition for teams he could pitch for in the future. He wants to refine his command, compete, and show he’s healthy, he said.
“I’m thinking about next year, for sure,” Hernandez said. “That’s why I need to go out there and show I can pitch.”
SANTANA OUT A ‘COUPLE DAYS’
Mariners right fielder Domingo Santana, who was pulled from Tuesday night’s game with soreness in his right elbow, remained out of the lineup Thursday, but has not been placed on the injured list.
“He’s going to swing the bat a little bit (Friday),” Servais said. “You might see us — if he’s up to it, and he feels good, and it doesn’t bother him swinging the bat at all — give him a chance to DH and maybe work his way back a little bit.
“But, it will be some time before he gets out and does some throwing. He’s having a really good offensive year. You don’t want to take that away from him.”
Servais said Wednesday morning’s MRI results showed a strain, but it was not significant enough to require surgery or an IL stay as of now.
“But, it’s pretty flared up and it’s sore,” Servais said. “If it doesn’t respond well to swinging the bat — whether it’s in the cage or BP or whatever — then we might have to go a different route, and maybe he does need to take an IL. But, I’m hopeful that it doesn’t bother him swinging, we can get him DH-ing a little bit, and see where it goes from there.”
ROTATION WON’T CHANGE
Servais said Thursday he doesn’t plan to make any adjustments to the Mariners’ starting rotation following the conclusion of this homestand. He is not planning to skip any starters, or switch up the order.
Seattle has an off day Monday before a short two-game series in Texas that wraps up the day of the MLB trade deadline. Mike Leake is scheduled to start Tuesday’s game, while Wade LeBlanc (who typically follows an opener), is projected for Wednesday.
“Everybody’s done well,” Servais said. “They need the extra day (of rest). It doesn’t hurt anybody.”
The rotation, of course, could be altered if the Mariners deal Leake, who has been rumored as a potential trade piece since the season began.
In his past two starts, Leake’s allowed a combined three runs across 16 innings — all three coming on a Rougned Odor homer in the sixth inning Wednesday afternoon against Texas — and struck out 13 batters, while walking just one.
The 14 2/3 scoreless innings he tossed between the two starts is the longest streak by a Mariners pitcher this season.