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Matt Calkins: Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez’s injury provides a much-needed break

UPDATED: Wed., May 15, 2019

Seattle’s Felix Hernandez walks off the field after being relieved during the third inning against the Boston Red Sox in Boston on Saturday. (Michael Dwyer / AP)
Seattle’s Felix Hernandez walks off the field after being relieved during the third inning against the Boston Red Sox in Boston on Saturday. (Michael Dwyer / AP)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

SEATTLE – The Mariners’ most dominant pitcher of this century is going to be out for the next four to six weeks.

A Grade 1 lat strain will keep the club’s all-time wins, strikeouts and earned-run average leader on the bench for the rest of the month, and possibly the rest of next month, too.

No more “K!” chants for Felix Hernandez for a while. No more yellow and blue by the left-field foul pole.

In what’s likely his last season in Seattle, the six-time All-Star will again be sidelined with an injury. And here’s the best way to describe it: merciful.

There is no better microcosm for this Mariners season than Hernandez. The former star was expected to struggle for a team given no real chance to win.

Then, through the first month of the season, he overachieved for a club that began the year 13-2. Two weeks later … yikes.

In eight starts this year, Hernandez has allowed 28 runs in 38 2/3 innings, good for a 6.52 earned-run average. If he had enough innings pitched to qualify, that would be the worst ERA in the major leagues.

It was just 10 days ago that Felix declared, “I still got it,” to my colleague Larry Stone after logging at least six innings in four straight games. But it turns out that reality, just like regression, bites.

Over his past two starts, Hernandez has allowed 13 earned runs in 7 1/3 innings while surrendering four home runs.

Seven of those earned runs came over 2 1/3 innings vs. the Red Sox on Saturday, when he confessed to feeling some pinching in his shoulder.

The blowup inning that haunted him throughout last season reappeared twice this past road trip, spray-painting a stat line that was respectable before May. Now, he waits to return to health, but it’s hard to imagine he can return to form.

Hernandez’s ERA over the past six seasons: 2.14 in 2014, 3.53 in 2015, 3.82 in 2016, 4.36 in 2017, 5.55 in 2018 and 6.52 now. This isn’t particularly hard to dissect. Age, mileage and injuries have gradually stripped him of his talent.

This isn’t a situation in which you’re waiting for it to get better – it’s one where you’re waiting for it to be over.

I hope this doesn’t come across as an affront to Felix the man. He was one of the American League’s best pitchers for years and was gracious and respectful throughout his dominance. The fact that the M’s never got him to a 163rd game is among this city’s great between-the-lines tragedies. But when you see a decline so consistent and dramatic, you can’t help but wonder if even his most ardent fans are grateful for the break he’s going to take.

Hernandez, on the other hand, seems eager to get back.

What was your reaction to being out four to six weeks? he was asked.

“Well, they say four to six weeks, but we’ll see. If we’re making progress, then it will be less than that,” he said.

Was that time frame a relief knowing it could have been longer?

“Four to six weeks is a lot of time. Like I said, if we’re making progress, it could be less.”

How have you felt about the season so far?

“The last two times were bad. Other than that, I feel pretty good. A couple games got away. I did not have good command. A lot of walks in Boston and I got in trouble.”

It’s unlikely you’re going to hear Hernandez flagellate himself publicly. He’ll talk himself up regardless of his struggles.

And it’s more unlikely he has pitched his last game for the now 22-23 Mariners. Given his history here and their likelihood of missing the playoffs, he’ll get a proper send-off.

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