Felix Hernandez walked toward his familiar locker in the back corner of the Seattle Mariners clubhouse Saturday night, sporting one of the golden “King Felix” shirts many fans wear to his starts, with the sleeves cut off, and cheerfully greeted the waiting media.
It’s been months since the former Mariners ace, who has spent all 15 of his major-league seasons here, had smiled during a postgame interview.
“I’m glad that I’m back,” Hernandez said.
There were moments earlier this summer it seemed Hernandez, who is 33 years old and in the final year of a contract with Seattle that likely won’t be renewed, wouldn’t step on the mound at T-Mobile Park again this season.
There were certainly questions of whether he’d ever pitch in a Mariners uniform again, or perhaps if he’d ever pitch again at all after he was placed on the injured list in May — his fourth such placement since 2017.
“It was a long time,” Hernandez said. “I worked my butt off trying to get back. And I did.”
Saturday, the starting pitcher so affectionately known by those in Seattle as “The King” finally returned. He worked the 5 2/3 innings against the Toronto Blue Jays, allowing two runs on three hits while walking three and striking out four on 88 pitches (54 strikes).
He was pulled from the game in the sixth — perhaps deeper than the Mariners assumed he would pitch in his first MLB game back from an extended injury — with a 5-2 lead, in line for his first win since April, though Seattle ultimately lost 7-5.
The outing wasn’t necessarily vintage Hernandez. He had trouble locating pitches at times, said he fought his changeup throughout the outing, and gave up a pair of solo homers in the third inning. But, it was certainly a positive entrance back into a season that seemed lost this spring.
“That’s a heck of an outing, a heck of a way to get back out on the field, and I’m really happy for him,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “There have been struggles the last few years staying healthy, and people want to write him off, and everything else, but when the bell rings, if he’s got enough in the tank to go out there and compete, he does a heck of a job.”
Hernandez said earlier in the week after his final minor-league rehab appearance with Triple-A Tacoma it was important to him to return to the Mariners this season, and pitch in the ballpark he’s spent his entire MLB career in, in front of the fans he knows so well.
“This is (probably) going to be my last year,” he said then. “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.”
Those 34,590 in attendance Saturday showed they still love him, too. His “King’s Court” section situated behind the left foul pole was full as he walked out of the bullpen ahead of the first inning.
“I love that,” Hernandez said. “I always loved that. It’s the best section in baseball.”
And Mariners and Blue Jays fans alike rose and applauded as he made his way to the dugout. They gave him another standing ovation when he eventually left the game, and he waved in return.
“I really appreciate everything,” Hernandez said. “I’ve been here for a long time. Just to be out there with my teammates and compete against anybody was fun.”
With potentially six starts remaining this season — his next is scheduled for Thursday when the Mariners play Texas in Arlington — Hernandez said he just wants to do what he’s done in the majors for nearly two decades.
“Just go out there and compete, man,” he said. “That’s all I can do. Just go out there, compete, and try to give my team a chance to win.”
“You saw it tonight,” Servais said. “You put 35,000 people in here ... and he really thrives on that. He always has throughout his career. It’s a testament to the competitor he is. He really enjoys it and he likes that environment.”
Hernandez retired the first six batters he faced on just 16 pitches before allowing the pair of solo home runs to Teoscar Hernandez and Blue Jays rookie Bo Bichette in the third. He walked one batter and hit another before eventually getting out of that inning without further damage.
His pitch count steadily climbing, he retired eight of the final 11 batters he faced, and didn’t allow another run, despite issuing each of his three walks after Toronto hit the two homers that tied the score at 2-2.
He was pulled with two outs in the sixth after allowing a double to Randal Grichuck, but rookie Taylor Guilbeau came in and struck out former Mariner Justin Smoak to end the scoring threat.
“Outstanding performance,” Servais said. “It just goes to show how talented Felix Hernandez really is. I know he’s had an unbelievable career in stretches here. Obviously dealt with a lot of injuries the last couple years, but to sit on the sidelines for three months and go out and do that, very, very impressive.”