Former Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, who has been on the injured list since May, pitched three-plus innings Monday night in a rehab start for Triple-A Tacoma at Cheney Stadium. It was his fourth — and longest in terms of pitch count — rehab start in the past three weeks.
Mariners manager Scott Servais confirmed to reporters Tuesday in St. Petersburg that Hernandez will rejoin the starting rotation for this weekend’s series against the Blue Jays at T-Mobile Park, slotting in Saturday.
Hernandez said there were no lingering shoulder issues in Monday’s rehab start, and believes he’s physically ready to be activated.
“I feel pretty good,” he said. “I’m ready to go.”
The 33-year-old, in the final year of his contract with Seattle — a contract that by all indications won’t be revisited — noted the importance of returning to pitch again in the ballpark he’s spent his entire big-league career in.
“I can’t wait to go up there and pitch again,” he said. “This is (probably) going to be my last year. I don’t know what’s going to happen next year. So, I’ve got to go out there and show them I still love the fans, and still love Seattle.”
Should he return this weekend, he could make as many as seven starts (likely less if the Mariners do indeed expand the rotation to six pitchers) by the end of September. He was 1-4 with a 6.52 ERA across eight starts with Seattle before a Grade 1 lat strain derailed his season midway through May.
“It’s been frustrating, man,” Hernandez said. “It’s been tough on my mind. But, you know what, you’ve got to forget about it. You’ve got a month and a half left to go out there and pitch.”
Hernandez allowed one run on four hits, while walking three and striking out five Monday night against the Salt Lake Bees.
He was removed after walking back-to-back batters to open the fourth with his pitch count at 69. Rainiers manager Daren Brown said pregame the plan was to have him throw 70 pitches or five innings — whichever came first.
“That was OK,” Hernandez said. “Not bad. ... Not the result I want, but I felt pretty good. I had a good sinker, good curveball, good changeup. I didn’t throw that many sliders today. But, like I said, it felt pretty good.”
Hernandez waved to the cheering crowd when he walked back to the dugout, but glanced twice toward home plate umpire David Arrieta in frustration after the two walks. (Neither side seemed too pleased with Arrieta’s strike zone — both Bees manager Lou Marson and second baseman Ty Kelly were later ejected.)
Hernandez allowed a one-out single and walk in the first before Jose Rojas knocked in the Bees’ only run against him on a single to center. Hernandez struck out both Michael Hermosillo and Jarrett Parker to end the frame, but with his pitch count already at 23.
The second inning was more efficient. He faced four batters — Nick Franklin doubled to right on a soft liner that went in and out of Eric Filia’s glove — and retired the final three on 13 pitches. In the third, he struck out the side with a Jared Walsh double sandwiched in between.
Hernandez’s fastball hovered between 88-91 mph, and four of his five strikeouts were swinging. He had success against each of the Angels’ top-30 prospects that play for Salt Lake. He got a groundout and pop up out of top prospect Jo Adell, allowed a single and struck out No. 22 prospect Taylor Ward, and struck out No. 26 prospect Hermosillo swinging twice.
“The intensity level was really good,” Servais said. “Curveball was good. He threw a lot of those. Command of the fastball was as expected. It wasn’t as pinpoint as he would have liked it. But, he felt healthy. That was all good there.”
Hernandez appeared for the Rainiers on June 14 during a separate rehab assignment, trying to work his way back from a Grade 1 lat strain, but pulled himself out of that start in the third inning with shoulder fatigue. He didn’t make another rehab appearance until the first week of August.
In his first start with Short-A Everett on August 2, he pitched two perfect innings while striking out two. The following week with High-A Modesto, he allowed a pair of runs on three hits while striking out three. Wednesday with Everett, he tossed four scoreless innings, allowing one hit and striking out eight. He hadn’t issued a walk until Monday night’s rehab start.
With Hernandez returning, Servais said Seattle will skip rookie Yusei Kikuchi’s next start, which was scheduled for Friday. This possibility was discussed before Kikuchi’s most recent start against the Blue Jays, during which he threw his first complete-game shutout in the majors.
“When I talked to him the other day part of the plan when we brought him in was to give him periodic breaks, and we’ve done that,” Servais said. “We’ll stay with the plan. We’ve done it all along.”
Servais said the Mariners will recall rookie Justus Sheffield, the No. 9 prospect in the organization, from Double-A Arkansas to start in place of Kikuchi. Hernandez will follow Saturday, and Marco Gonzales will pitch Sunday.
Kikuchi will be slotted back into the rotation following his skipped start, but which day has not yet been determined. The Mariners will work with a six-starter rotation from that point on, Servais said.