SEATTLE – They have King’s Court in the left-field corner at Safeco Field for every Felix Hernandez start – yellow shirts and K cards for everyone. When it overflows, they add the High Court up in Section 347, without accounting for how it went from a royal metaphor to a judicial one.
And, of course, there’s been the Supreme Court when everyone got goodies to celebrate his perfect game.
Needy marketeers that the Seattle Mariners are, it’s a surprise they haven’t added Civil Court (no alcohol), Family Court (a no-bro zone) or even Appellate Court, where the crowd could be allowed to ring up one checked-swing strikeout victim to help their hero.
Or Small Claims Court. Fans could sue to recover the price of their tickets any time the bullpen coughs up one of Felix’s leads.
But that could bring the docket to I-5-level gridlock.
Even kings get the royal shaft occasionally, though for Felix Hernandez it’s been a way of life with the Seattle Mariners. And so it was on another Sunday – Hernandez crafting his way through an afternoon when he wasn’t at his sharpest, still holding the Oakland A’s without a run for seven innings, leaving with a one-run lead and then watching from the dugout as his bullpen Jordan Spieths it.
Game, set and sweep for the A’s. The Mariners hitters can’t hit (0 of 16 with runners in scoring position these first three home games), the relievers offer no relief and it’s all very 2015.
Or, really, any year.
And Hernandez’s grail of pitching in the postseason – with the M’s, in his prime – starts to look again like a futile quest.
There are still 156 games to change this, as tempting as it is to make every game a referendum on the Mariners’ worth. But the sheer “Groundhog Day” inevitability of the culture and the circumstances tends to grind on the soul.
His soul, too. In spring training, he told the Seattle Times that not pitching in the playoffs “drives me crazy.”
Yet never has he been heard to say that after the many times his stellar starts have ended in a loss or no decision through lack of support – 63 starts in his Seattle career of seven innings or longer with two or fewer runs surrendered.
And still he has continued to place his faith in the franchise, his latest contract – signed three years ago – taking him through 2019. He has done right by the Mariners in ways the club can never reciprocate.
Consider the mere existence of the King’s Court. Charismatic, entertaining and productive, Hernandez has been, in so many recent seasons, the lone motivation beyond a sunny Seattle day to attend an M’s game. For instance, often as not last season, Seattle’s Wednesday outings drew in the teens – but in Hernandez’s three Wednesday starts, the average gate was over 30,000.
He remains two wins behind Jamie Moyer’s franchise record of 145, and his 10 strikeouts Sunday leave him just five from overtaking Randy Johnson. Both of which go hand in hand with another, less embraceable milestone.
On Friday, Hernandez turned 30.
This doesn’t make him a broken down old plug, but it’s a heavily used 30 – 2,275 innings pitched in not quite 11 full seasons. And he can’t stop time.
“At some point – and I’m not going to say he’s at that point – it starts to back down,” said M’s pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr., referencing Hernandez velocity if not his want-to. “There’s been a lot of wear and tear on this guy. He throws hard pitches.
“When he gets in trouble, he doesn’t give in to hitters.”
Which is precisely what happened Sunday. He did as much as the A’s to extend at-bats – unfraid to miss low a couple times to entice swings or set batters up – and still finished them off. Of course, that made the pitch count their ally.
“You almost feel like there’s momentum in your dugout just by the fact that he’s out of the game,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin.
What has wear and tear taken from Hernandez? It’s clear he doesn’t throw as hard any more – his average fastball was 92 mph last year, down from 96 in 2007 – and throws it half as often. He has evolved rather than having to reinvent himself.
Stottlemyre – Hernandez’s seventh M’s pitching coach (father Mel Sr. was one of them, too) – has actually urged his ace to work more on his fastball in bullpen sessions between starts “because he gets enough use in the game on his secondary stuff.”
But, of course, Hernandez’s efficiency is not an issue – though it was to the pitcher last year in a handful of rare flops. But he only gets the ball 32 or 33 starts a season. Somehow the M’s must find a way to maintain the heat he generates in the other 130.
They owe him that much. And the ball’s in their court.
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