Tacoma Rainiers

Hernandez mows through Salt Lake hitters in final tuneup before return to Mariners

Mariners ace Felix Hernandez enters the field for his rehab start with the Tacoma Rainiers on June 6. He made his third rehab start on Saturday with the Rainiers.
Mariners ace Felix Hernandez enters the field for his rehab start with the Tacoma Rainiers on June 6. He made his third rehab start on Saturday with the Rainiers. toverman@theolympian.com

Fans in Tacoma greeted Felix Hernandez with cheers and applause Saturday night each time he emerged from the dugout, and for good reason.

It’s likely the last time they’ll see The King in Tacoma this season.

Hernandez, making his third rehabilitation start of the month at Cheney Stadium, showed he’s ready to finally return to Seattle. The former Cy Young winner threw 87 pitches in six scoreless innings, striking out eight Salt Lake batters while allowing just four baserunners.

The Rainiers snapped a four-game losing streak and Hernandez earned the win, 2-0, over the Bees.

Hernandez was initially slated to make two rehab appearances. He said he felt he was ready for a return to the majors following last Sunday’s start, but the team gave him one more start in Tacoma with an 85-pitch limit.

Perhaps the biggest highlight of Hernandez’s appearance came near the end of the third inning. Salt Lake’s Kaleb Cowart faced Hernandez with a full count and two outs. After getting ahead 0-2, Hernandez threw three consecutive balls. He responded with a pitch low in the strike zone, drawing a mighty swing from Cowart and getting the strikeout. Cowart slammed is bat against the dirt in frustration as Hernandez and the rest of the Rainier’s left the field.

“We’re looking for him to execute pitches, have his mechanics in sync and for him to come out, throw strikes and compete,” Rainiers manager Pat Listach said. “That’s what he did in his last start, and we’re just gonna up his pitch count so when he goes back to the big leagues, he can go 100 pitches.”

Listach said pitchers often become injured if they see a drastic jump in pitch count from one start to the other. Hernandez threw 50 pitches in his first start and 64 in his second.

Peterson still has room to improve

It’s been a good couple of weeks for Rainiers infielder D.J. Peterson.

Peterson, the 12th overall pick in the 2013 MLB draft, has “feasted” on opposing left-handed pitchers recently, in the words of Listach.

Peterson saw a stretch in June in which he faced four left-handed pitchers in a six-game span. He homered in three consecutive games from June 9-11 and has also seen his batting average rise 22 points to .265.

“He did exactly what he was supposed to do against those lefties,” Listach said. “He got some confidence and now he’s starting to hit the righties a little bit better now.”

Listach said Peterson’s struggles have come when right-handed pitchers throw breaking balls out of the zone.

“He’s gotta make the adjustment,” Listach said. “It’s up to him to make the adjustment to not swing at it and work himself back into a good hitting count.”

Peterson is the 13th-ranked prospect in the Mariners organization, according to Baseball Today.

“All first-round picks think they need to be All-Stars in the big leagues,” Listach said. “You’d have to ask him if he’s putting extra pressure on himself … All he can do is be himself.”