April 11, 2013 in Sports

With M’s rotation diminished, pressure builds on Felix

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Associated Press photo

Felix Hernandez said “I will not let you down” after signing a seven-year, $175 million contract extension with the Mariners.
(Full-size photo)

SEATTLE – Today: Gad, another loss? To the Astros? This team is still hard to watch.

Never mind. Felix is pitching today. That’s the only time they’re worth watching anyway.

Two weeks from now: For having the most minor roster in the majors, Houston really has Seattle’s number.

No problem. The King will right the ship.

Next month: Man, Felix didn’t really have it last night, did he?

Nope. Can’t afford that.

Shortly after: Time to bring up another of the “Big Three” from Triple-A and stick him in the rotation in front of Felix.

It’s a little like Ray Charles auditioning new Raelettes every few weeks, isn’t it?

Later: Felix isn’t himself. Think it’s elbow trouble?

You try throwing a 93 mph fastball with an entire pitching staff hooky-bobbing on your shoulders.

The end: Who’s left from the Doug Fister trade? Charlie Furbush? Man, who would have thought the Jarrod Washburn and Erik Bedard era would be remembered as the good old days?

Now you know why Felix was crying when he got the contract extension.

• • •

So we’ve arrived at the one day in five when the Northwest can bring itself to care about the Seattle Mariners anymore.

Felix Hernandez makes his third start of the season tonight against the Texas Rangers, and it’s good to see the schedule easing up for the M’s now that the ’27 Yankees have left town.

The other good news is that the club seems to have ordered more than enough yellow T-shirts for the King’s first Safeco start of 2013. The first 20,000 through the gates get one. Seeing as the Mariners have drawn barely 10,000 each of the last two games – Wednesday’s 10,493 is an all-time Safeco low – some local thrift shop may be getting a big clothing donation.

That the Lastros leave town just a half game behind the M’s may or may not be cause for alarm. The sample size – 10 games – remains too small for definitive conclusions. As M’s manager Eric Wedge said the other day: “It’s 162 games. You give things time to play out, because you get rewarded in time.

“Then if it gets to the point where it shows itself to be something different, you make whatever adjustments you need to make.”

Seattle, of course, made some adjustments in the offseason, importing a couple of big bats, a couple of wise old veteran backups, nudging up the fences and turning the starting rotation into Felix and the Whodats.

There is give and take in every roster construction. And there are still lineup concerns. If the young core of Kyle Seager, Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero don’t get something going this season, general manager Jack Zduriencik will have some ’splainin’ to do.

But the teetery notion of the M’s as a .500 ballclub, or better, now rests heavily with a pitching staff that is more Felix-dependent than ever.

Not a comfort.

There was not a dry eye in the house a couple months ago when the now-27-year-old ace signed a new contract for seven years and $175 million.

Hernandez’s desire – his insistence – on reupping with Seattle as more or less a lifer (the contract has a no-trade clause, a Mariners first) was a strong message on both ends, especially with the fan flight from Safeco’s seats.

It comes with risks. In his seven full major league seasons, Hernandez has averaged 220 innings a year. That durability is proof that he can handle it; it’s pitchers who have been injured who are the most likely to succumb to overwork.

But the weight of this year’s innings is likely to be enormous, a salvage operation every fifth day.

Recent Seattle staffs may not have inspired awe, but they were good enough, from 2009 on, to rank first, third, sixth and fourth in earned run average in the American League. The 2009 group was Team Counterintuitive: 12 different pitchers started games that year.

This season? Hisashi Iwakuma was a nice back-end find last year. Now he’s the No. 2 starter. Joe Saunders, the No. 3, is a plugger who’s been jettisoned by three teams in three years. Rookie Brandon Maurer, the first M’s starter to make the jump from Double-A in 20 years, hasn’t been able to get anyone out in two starts. Blake Beavan has pitched like a placeholder for one of the touted young arms in Tacoma, and a poor one.

So there are alternatives. But none that seem likely to keep Felix from getting a clap on the shoulder and a “Need it from you tonight, big guy” every time out.

Never mind the pressure he’s already heaped on himself.

“To all the people of Seattle who trust me and believe in me,” he said at his contract signing, “I will not let you down.”

He has to realize that’s a King-sized promise.

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