Seattle Mariners

Mariners preview: Felix Hernandez’s belief in Seattle key to club’s rising fortunes

Many of our most amazing stories can be traced to a single act of faith. To that moment when one person believes, and acts on that belief, when others see no reason to do so.

That’s worth remembering as the Seattle Mariners, buoyed by escalating optimism, prepare for their season opener at 1:10 p.m. Monday against the Los Angeles Angels at Safeco Field.

“Our goal is to make the playoffs and win the whole thing,” declared right-hander Felix Hernandez, who will start the club’s opener for the seventh consecutive season. “We’ve got the pieces now. So, no excuses.”

That kind of optimism. No-excuses optimism.

It’s a feeling that took root last season when the Mariners, after signing second baseman Robinson Cano, produced a 16-game turnaround and were one win from reaching the postseason for the first time since 2001.

Cano’s arrival coincided with the first tangible rewards from the organization’s often-painful rebuilding process.

Third baseman Kyle Seager blossomed into an All-Star and a Gold Glove recipient. Catcher Mike Zunino, in his first full season, displayed the ability to handle a diverse staff while showing the promise of potent production.

Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, long viewed as two of the game’s top young arms, flashed their potential with glimpses of dominance.

Hisashi Iwakuma, though slowed by an injury, validated his 2013 All-Star form. Veteran closer Fernando Rodney signed on, set a club record with 48 saves and stabilized a young relief corps.

That optimism blossomed further last winter when general manager Jack Zduriencik addressed the club’s need for a right-handed power hitter by signing Nelson Cruz, who led the majors last season with 40 home runs.

“That got everybody’s attention,” Zduriencik said. “They look at this club and feel we’re in a position that we can do some things.”

Zduriencik and his lieutenants also added veterans Seth Smith, Rickie Weeks, Justin Ruggiano and J.A. Happ to a roster that, last season, too often relied on too many untested players.

Cano looks around now and notes Zduriencik did what he promised — “to build a championship team … over the next three years.”

Believing Zduriencik, as Cano did, in December 2013 took faith, certainly.

The Mariners were coming off a four-year stretch in which they averaged 93.5 losses. Zduriencik’s job appeared in jeopardy, and the club’s front office was in disarray amid reports of rampant dysfunction.

But when Cano chose to walk away from a fortune in New York Yankees pinstripes for greater riches in what was then a baseball wasteland, he knew he wouldn’t be alone in attempting to resurrect the Mariners.

“I wouldn’t say it’s only going to be my face (on the franchise),” he said. “You’re going to talk about Felix. He’s a guy who has been here a long time, and he’s one of the best in the game.”

In short, Cano likely doesn’t come to the Mariners, at any price, if they don’t have King Felix. Without Cano, it’s hard to imagine last year’s turnaround.

Without that turnaround, Cruz doesn’t view the Mariners as “the best choice I could make” to be “part of a winning team.” Add up those “withouts” and the Mariners are just that — without — as this season opens.

So how did this start?

Pull the string, and the trail leads back to Feb. 13, 2013.

To Felix Hernandez.

*****

It’s almost easy to forget now how inconceivable it once seemed that Hernandez might remain a Mariner long enough to start in this season’s opener.

For years, as the Mariners floundered, Zduriencik said he received “countless” calls from organizations seeking to acquire his ace right-hander. The assumption on the other end was always the same:

Why wouldn’t the Mariners surrender their most coveted player in order to accelerate their rebuilding process? No matter how good Hernandez is, the reasoning went, the Mariners couldn’t win with him alone. They had to deal.

Zduriencik kept saying no. But no matter how many times he did, or how steadfast he was, the calls kept coming.

“It just wasn’t going to happen,” Zduriencik recalled. “He’s an elite pitcher. When you take him away, then anything you get back is not going to offset that loss. It’s actually going to set you back years.”

Even so, the clock ticked away a countdown within the organization. Hernandez’s deal at the time, signed when he was still tied to the club for two years of arbitration, was set to expire at the end of the 2014 season.

Two years remained on that contract when the Mariners began their pitch to persuade Hernandez, at 26, to buy in to their future and not force them into the must-trade scenario that nearly everyone else saw as inevitable.

Two years out was the key moment. A pending free agent’s trade value typically starts to decrease after that point. It dips further when that player has a year or less before free agency.

The Mariners reached deep and ponied up a potent offer of $175 million over seven years that was, effectively, a five-year extension for Felix. At an average of $25 million a year, it remains among the richest deals in the game.

But Zduriencik, chief executive officer Howard Lincoln and then-club president Chuck Armstrong knew what everyone knew: Hernandez could likely command even more as a free agent after the 2014 season.

The Mariners were asking Hernandez to have faith, to believe things would get better, at a time when there seemed very little reason to have such faith.

It stunned the industry when Hernandez agreed — when he chose to believe — and in a news conference on that February day after signing the deal, he tried to explain that faith, often through tears, in a halting voice.

“I don’t do this because I care about the money,” he insisted. “I do this because I care about the people in Seattle. I do this because I love this city. … I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to stay here.

“It was a decision that I’ve made for a long time. … I want to play in a place where I feel great, I feel comfortable. I feel good around the people in the city of Seattle. That’s why I do this.”

Hernandez also made a vow that day.

“I’ll tell you this,” he said, “I will do my best. We’re going to make the playoffs. We’re going to be one of the toughest teams in this league.”

Not then, maybe.

Maybe now.

*****

"I’ll tell you this," Hernandez said at a press conference announcing his $175 million deal in 2013. "I will do my best. We’re going to make the playoffs. We’re going to be one of the toughest teams in this league." (AP)

Felix Hernandez turns 29 on Wednesday — still only 29 — but he is the current player with the longest continuous service in the Mariners’ organization. He made his major league debut on Aug. 4, 2005 in Detroit at 19 years, 118 days old — the youngest to pitch in the majors since Jose Rijo in 1984.

Willie Bloomquist was then in his first tour with the club and started at second base.

“He had tremendous stuff,” Bloomquist recalled, “but he was more of a hard-throwing, electric phenom. He was 96, 97 (mph) and would just blow it by guys. He had a big-time arm from a young age.

“It was just a matter if he could learn how to pitch.”

Hernandez lost that game, 3-1, despite allowing just one earned run in five innings. The Mariners fell to 15 games under .500 at 46-61. Now-teammate Fernando Rodney closed out Detroit’s victory for a save.

That was almost 10 years ago.

Bloomquist and Rodney moved on to other teams. Both played in the postseason while Hernandez toiled for a succession of poor-to-mediocre Seattle clubs. Nonetheless, he gained recognition as one of the game’s premier stars.

“He throws 97 to 98 with a good breaking pitch, good change-up,” former Mariners pitcher Freddy Garcia once said. “He has everything. The only thing he has to do is to keep focused and working hard for success.”

Hernandez stayed focused. He and two others led the American League with 19 victories in 2009 and Hernandez finished second in the Cy Young Award balloting. A year later, he led the AL with a 2.27 ERA and won the Cy Young.

He also had a presence beyond his years.

“This kid is real confident in his abilities,” said Mike Hargrove, who was managing the Mariners when Hernandez reached the majors. “He is secure in who he is.”

But former Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire countered, “I don’t think we’re talking about poise here. I think we’re talking about a 97 mph fastball and a curveball from hell.”

Hernandez has pitched at least 200 innings in each of the past seven years, has 200 or more strikeouts in each of his past six seasons and was chosen for the All-Star team five times. He started last year’s All-Star Game.

“When you ask about durability, when you ask about consistency,” Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez said, “I think Felix brings (those qualities). Not only that, Felix is still so young, so capable of doing anything.”

For all that, Hernandez’s résumé had — still has — a gaping hole.

“I haven’t been in the playoffs,” he said, “and I dream of that. Guys who have been there say it’s so different. They say there’s nothing like it. I want to know that feeling.”

So why, then, with free agency looming, did Hernandez choose to remain with the Mariners on that day a little more than two years ago when the postseason seemed impossibly far away? What made him believe?

You can hear the answer Monday when he takes the mound.

*****

Fans in the King’s Court section at Safeco Field show their appreciation for Hernandez at every one of his home starts. (AP)
Fans in the King’s Court section at Safeco Field show their appreciation for Hernandez at every one of his home starts. (AP)

The King’s Court, or the more expanded Supreme Court, offers towel-waving testimony to the connection between Hernandez and the fans whenever he pitches at Safeco Field.

Hernandez credits the crowd for helping carry him through his perfect game on Aug. 15, 2012, a 1-0 victory over Tampa Bay. And he still warms in recalling the reception he received when he last pitched at Safeco.

That was the season finale a year ago, against the Angels, when Hernandez was simultaneously trying to pitch the Mariners into a one-game playoff for the AL’s final postseason berth and win the ERA title for a second time.

Hernandez did his part, but the news from Texas wasn’t good. As the Mariners batted in the fifth inning, they learned the postseason must wait at least one more year; the scoreboard reported Oakland had closed out a 4-0 victory, eliminating the Mariners.

That news prompted a brief collective moan from the Safeco crowd of 40,823 before it stood and cheered. It cheered again in the sixth when Hernandez, the ERA crown secured, turned the game over to the bullpen.

“That was amazing,” Hernandez recalled. “People ask me about that all of the time, and I’ve got no words to explain that. It was just unbelievable.”

He expects a similar reception Monday, when he makes his club-record eighth start in a season opener. For the first time since 2008, though, the season opens at home.

“First, I want to see King’s Court,” Hernandez said in detailing his anticipation. “And then, it’s been a while since we opened in Seattle. It’s going to be a great experience.”

The first, he believes, of many this season.

“It feels different around here,” he said, “a lot different. We’ve improved our offense. We brought in Nelson Cruz and other hitters. We still have Cano, Seager and all of those guys.

“We want to win. That’s what we’re here for. That’s our main goal. Just to be in the playoffs. We look pretty good, but it’s a tough division. We’ve just got to play.”

Hernandez is boisterous, as he often is, in barking out those words and almost breathless by the end. Then he pauses and softens his delivery. The change-up after the fastball. And just as telling.

“This is where I wanted to be for this,” he said. “This is where I always wanted to be. Not anywhere else. Here. I want to win here. I’ve always wanted to win here. Now, we have a great team here.”

Just as he always believed.

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