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Hernandez starts off year for M’s at Anaheim

ANAHEIM, Calif. – It’s still special to Felix Hernandez. Even after all these years, the thrill of making the start on opening day hasn’t lost its meaning to the Mariners ace.

“For sure, it’s the start of the new season,” he said. “It’s always fun. It’s the start of a new season. It’s on national TV. So you gotta do good.”

When Hernandez steps to the mound Monday night at Angels Stadium and throws that first pitch for the Mariners, it will be the seventh time he’s done so in his career. It will set a club record, surpassing the record he shared with Randy Johnson of six opening-day starts. It’s definitely an accomplishment and a tribute to his consistent success.

“Not bad, not bad,” he said. “He’s (Johnson) a great pitcher. He’s going to be a Hall of Famer. So that’s pretty good company to be in.”

In his six opening-day starts, Hernandez is 4-0 with a 1.33 ERA with 41 strikeouts in 471/3 innings pitched.

The fact that Hernandez will be making his seventh opening-day start isn’t surprising. He’s a No. 1 starter. But there wasn’t always a guarantee that he’d be making them with the Mariners. For years, there was a lingering fear he’d end up with another team. But Hernandez crushed that possibility by signing a $175 million, seven-year contract before last season.

“They always said that,” he said of the speculation. “But I’m happy here. I always said I was happy here.”

Realistically, this should be Hernandez’s eighth consecutive opening-day start. But in 2008, then-manager John McLaren decided to have Erik Bedard start opening day. It was a mistake and something that irked Hernandez, though he was professional enough to never admit it publicly.

That isn’t likely to happen again.

Hernandez flashed a wide smile when asked how he’s different from that first opening-day start in 2007 against the A’s at Safeco Field.

“I was a little nino,” he said. “I was just a little kid. I’m more mature, more experienced.”

Now he’s a veteran, the face of the franchise and a team leader. He understands his role and embraces it. It has impressed new manager Lloyd McClendon.

“There was a lot I didn’t know about him,” McClendon said. “Obviously, I knew he was a great pitcher. But he has a tremendous passion and a tremendous desire to win. I think he’s very grateful with where we are and where we are going. I think he can see the picture a little clearer now.”

While Hernandez is a veteran of opening-day starts, his catcher won’t be. This will be Mike Zunino’s first opening-day start.

“It’s extremely exciting,” Zunino said. “… It’s a huge deal.”