Felix Hernandez has pitched the opener five seasons for the Mariners but says this sixth one should be the most surprising for those not in the clubhouse.
“We’re going to be good,” Hernandez said. “We’re going to surprise people.” One can hardly fault Hernandez for being enthusiastic given the improved run support he should finally start seeing. The days of hoping voters look past a 13-win season in Cy Young Award voting should be a thing of the past for Hernandez with a bolstered middle of the order that just set a franchise record for Cactus League home runs.
“What I see is that we’ve got more offense,” said Hernandez, whose team opens in Oakland on Monday after facing the Colorado Rockies in an exhibition game today in Salt Lake City. “We’re always together right here in the clubhouse. We’re having a lot of fun. And that’s the difference.”
The Mariners scored 794 runs in 2007 and contended until early September. That run total fell to 671 in 2008, 640 in 2009, a historically low 513 in 2010, then 556 runs in 2011 and 619 last year. Strong pitching the past four years – ranging from the 651 runs allowed last year to 698 in 2010 – has been the team’s strength, but was rarely enough to mitigate the putrid offense.
Hernandez knows what it’s like to face lineups with a serious mid-order presence. He added that it’s not just the additions of Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales that could be a game-changer for the club.
“It’s not only the two guys, it’s the whole lineup,” said Hernandez, who went 13-9 with a 3.06 earned-run average last year, but failed to win in September and fell out of Cy Young contention. “It’s a different lineup than the last couple of years. And if they stay healthy, it’s going to make a lot of difference, too.”
Hernandez said the stronger middle of the order can only help the team’s younger hitters improve by taking some of the pressure off them.
“The talent is there, man,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of talent, like I’ve said before. We’ve got (Kyle) Seager coming back after an unbelievable year, too. … What can I say? We’re good.”
But for all the optimism surrounding the offense, there is still skepticism about the four rotation spots after Hernandez. Nevertheless, he said he expects bigger things from the team than many have predicted.
“(Hisashi) Iwakuma is way better than last year,” Hernandez said. “He ate up innings for us at the end of last year. It was good. (Joe) Saunders has a lot of experience, he’s got playoff experience. It’s going to help. (Brandon) Maurer, you’ve seen what he can do. (Blake) Beavan? He’s making a lot of adjustments and throwing the ball pretty good.”
The Mariners in 2009 surprised many by winning 85 games after a 101-loss campaign the previous year. Much of that began with a new core of veteran players – Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Sweeney and Russell Branyan – fostering a positive spring-training vibe that carried over to a fast regular-season start for a team that remained in playoff contention up to the July 31 trade deadline.
Hernandez says he sees similarities between the veteran-led clubhouse vibe then and the one cultivated this year by Morse, Morales, Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay. But the difference again comes down to offense.
“This year, spring training has been different because we’ve been hitting a lot of home runs,” Hernandez said. “We’ve got power hitters. What can I say? It’s different.”
And the feeling that games might not already be over when the Mariners fall behind 2-0 early is one Hernandez can feel spreading to both hitters and pitchers.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence,” Hernandez said. “A lot of confidence.”