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‘I wasn’t planning this’: In likely final season with Mariners, Felix Hernandez ponders uncertain future

UPDATED: Fri., July 26, 2019, 5:27 p.m.

Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Felix Hernandez works against the San Diego Padres during the first inning  on Aug. 28, 2018, in San Diego. (Gregory Bull / AP)
Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Felix Hernandez works against the San Diego Padres during the first inning on Aug. 28, 2018, in San Diego. (Gregory Bull / AP)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Felix Hernandez stretched out on a leather couch in what was basically an empty Mariners clubhouse. The rest of his teammates either were in meetings, out on the field warming up or doing other preparation for Thursday night’s game versus the Detroit Tigers.

But until the team went on the field for batting practice, there was little for him to do. His baseball work for the day was done.

About a half-hour earlier, he had been on the T-Mobile Park pitcher’s mound – a place he hadn’t stood since April 30 – and threw to hitters.

Hernandez threw 22 pitches of live batting practice as part of his monthslong recovery from a latissimus dorsi strain.

Perhaps it was the quiet of the clubhouse or just the rare good day in a season filled with so many frustrating ones, but Hernandez was in a reflective mood. Though he’s never said it publicly, he’s spoken privately of his time with the Mariners – the only organization he’s known and for which he became a superstar – in the past tense. The seven-year contract extension he signed in 2013 for $175 million ends after this season.

At age 33, with almost 2,700 innings thrown and a performance level in steep decline, he’s not part of the Mariners’ rebuilding plan. And he seems ready to move on from the organization. His relationship with manager Scott Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto is tenuous at best.

In four seasons, Hernandez has not consistently shown them the Cy Young-level pitcher that Servais and Dipoto saw as opponents. Injuries, mechanical issues and wandering command have left Hernandez diminished.

Because he had no cachet with this new regime, Hernandez wasn’t allowed to operate on his own pitching plan and schedule like he had in the past. They even demoted him to the bullpen last season, something that was unthinkable in his prime. It’s a perceived slight that Hernandez will never forget.

Asked Thursday if it’s important for him to make at least a few starts at the place he still calls Safeco Field out of habit in front of Mariners fans who made the King’s Court the place to be for many seasons, he replied: “That would be awesome. For all my time spent here, it would be awesome.”

But pitching in a handful of games to end the season has a greater meaning than just sentimentality and memories.

“I need it,” he said quietly. “If I want to play next year, I need to go out there and pitch.”

That admission was jarring from someone with the supreme self-confidence of Hernandez. The concept of his baseball mortality and his future had never been a consideration. In his mind, he was going to have a strong 2019 season and sign a one- or two-year major league contract as a free agent.

But given the market for free-agent pitchers over age 30 with injury histories, Hernandez has been smacked by self-realization. If he’s lucky, he might sign a one-year, incentive-laden contract. But given his decline, it seems more realistic that he would sign a minor league contract with an invitation to big league spring training.

Such a scenario was impossible to fathom five years ago.

“I wasn’t planning this,” he said of this lost season. “I didn’t see this picture in my head.”

Maybe it was fitting he was lying on the couch while discussing his future. Besides the injuries and missed games, this season has been difficult. With his contract up after this season and his time in Seattle likely done, he moved his wife and two children back to his home in Miami to be their permanent residence. He’s here alone. Even his beloved labradoodle, Toffee, isn’t here. Facetime with his family and even the dog isn’t good enough.

“It’s so boring,” he said. “I’m by myself all the time. I come here, do my rehab and work out, go home and go to bed.”

For a moment, he mentions that maybe spending time with his children as they grow is more important. He doesn’t like missing out.

“Maybe I will be done,” he said.

But those thoughts are passing … for now. The idea of a life without baseball is still difficult to fathom. Right or wrong, in his mind there’s an outside shot at the Hall of Fame with a few more decent seasons.

“I have to show people that I’m healthy,” he said. “I’m thinking about next year for sure. That’s why I need to go out there and show people I can pitch.”

It’s why Thursday’s live batting practice mattered to him and why his apparent rust was frustrating.

The quick session with Dylan Moore and Tim Lopes batting didn’t last long. And it wasn’t pretty at times. Hernandez looked far from comfortable on the mound, spraying pitches all over and clearly trying to locate a rhythm that was never found.

“I was all over the place,” he admitted.

His delivery felt hurried.

“I was too quick with my mechanics,” he said.

The multiple bullpen sessions before the live batting practice helped, but they weren’t the same as having someone in the box trying to hit your pitches.

“It felt different,” he said. “I was seeing hitters for the first time in a month and a half.”

Pitching in a game will only intensify that feeling.

Servais was less than impressed with what he saw from the erstwhile Mariners ace.

“Felix has a ways to go,” Servais said. “It was rusty. I guess that’s the best way to describe what I saw. It wasn’t the smoothest I’ve seen him, and the ball really wasn’t jumping out of the hand. Like I said, he’s got a ways to go. He looked rusty.”

Servais was quick to point out that Hernandez hasn’t “pitched in forever.”

Hernandez was placed on the injured list May 12. He had missed 63 games entering Thursday. The right-hander’s hope of a normal recovery and return was sidetracked during a June 14 rehab start when he felt shoulder fatigue in his third inning.

The setback shut him down for two more weeks, and the rehab and recovery process has reached the point of pitching in games. There was no acute injury to cause the strain and issues that followed.

“A lot of innings from all my years,” he said. “My arm has been through a lot of baseball. There’s a lot of miles on that arm.”

And now?

“Physically, I feel fine,” he said. “We’ll see after Sunday.”

The original rehab plan had Hernandez starting and pitching two innings for short-season Everett on Sunday at Funko Field and pitching for Triple-A Tacoma five days later. Instead, he’s now set for more live batting practice on Sunday.

Will Hernandez pitch again for the Mariners this season?

“I certainly hope so,” Servais said. “We’ll see. A lot will be dictated on how the rehab assignment goes and how he feels.”

Asked the same question, Hernandez had a momentary return of some of his bravado, replying, “Why wouldn’t I?”

Well, there are reasons.

But for the most successful pitcher in Mariners history and the longtime face of this franchise, who toiled in early obscurity and was often surrounded by mediocrity, the last time he steps on a mound in Seattle can’t be a 22-pitch live batting practice.

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