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MARINERS NOTEBOOK: Hernandez heats up a cold day in Arizona

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By Kirby Arnold
Herald Writer
Published:
  • Seattle pitcher Felix Hernandez performs during a game last season.

    Jennifer Buchanan / The Herald

    Seattle pitcher Felix Hernandez performs during a game last season.

PEORIA, Ariz. — With Felix Hernandez on the mound and Rob Johnson behind the plate on a rainy, windy 50-degree morning, it seemed just like Safeco Field in April.
Instead, it was a very un-Arizona-like day Tuesday at the Seattle Mariners’ spring training complex, where Hernandez nevertheless left some warm, fuzzy feelings within his team.
Their ace right-hander didn’t allow a hit against 10 minor leaguer batters he faced in a 35-pitch simulated game.
“I thought he looked outstanding,” manager Don Wakamatsu said. “It’s really impressive to me to watch what a difference a year makes in the way he goes about his business.”
Hernandez struck out five and allowed only one baserunner, that one reaching when one of the minor leaguers let a routine — but wind-blown — fly fall in center field.
“All my pitches were there,” Hernandez said. “I think I’m ready for a game.”
Finally.
Overly cautious about Hernandez’s spring training workload after he pitched a career-high 2382/3 innings last year, the Mariners have forced him to take it easy so far in spring training. He has been limited to bullpen sessions and two simulated games, and will become the last Mariners starter to pitch an exhibition game this weekend.
Manager Don Wakamatsu said Hernandez probably would start Sunday against the Colorado Rockies at Tucson.
It’s all part of a plan to limit Hernandez to about 20 exhibition innings, which is the neighborhood he pitched last year before going on to a 19-5 record and a 2.49 earned run average.
“I think he’s on track,” Wakamatsu said. “I know we’ve held him back a little bit, but watching the action of his pitches, I couldn’t be more pleased at this point.”
Many of the minor leaguers Hernandez faced Tuesday simply laughed on their way back to the dugout after seeing the sharp drop on his sinker and curve, and the heaviness of his fastball.
“The simulated game, the bullpen and now today have all been outstanding,” Wakamatsu said. “His pitches were down in the zone and he threw a heavy ball.”
And while Hernandez said the windy, cool weather brought tears to his eyes, it also was a good indicator of how his pitches might react when the regular season begins. On a typical day in Arizona, the air is dry and breaking pitches don’t have crisp movement, but the weather Tuesday morning was more like springtime in Seattle.
“The one thing you see on weather days like this is that the ball actually acts normal opposed to Arizona,” Wakamatsu said. “I think you saw a little more sink today because of that.”
Finally game time for catcher Johnson
Catcher Rob Johnson caught Hernandez in his first game-speed action since last season and said his surgically repaired hips felt fine.
“I think tomorrow is going to be a big day to see how he responds from that,” Wakamatsu said.
Johnson had cartilage damage repaired in each hip in separate operations in October and November. He has experienced some soreness during spring training, including a bout last week that set him back a few days, but says he is moving with greater flexibility than before.
“I was getting into stances that I had to fight to get into last year,” Johnson said. “Now it’s a matter of getting into a game. It felt good to get back there with hitters in there. I am a lot more free with my hips. I was pleased with the way that felt.”
It wasn’t without a couple of mishaps. One pitch from Hernandez got away from Johnson, and he dropped a popup behind the plate that drifted in the strong wind.
“All I looked for is his health and the way he’s moving back there,” Wakamatsu said. “Obviously he dropped a couple of balls but I don’t know who could catch (Hernandez) today, his ball was moving so much.”
Wakamatsu said Johnson probably would start his first exhibition game on the Tucson trip.
More progress for Vargas
If this were the fifth game of the regular season, there doesn’t seem much question who the Mariners would put on the mound.
Jason Vargas, one of four competing for the Mariners’ fifth starter job, gave up two hits and a walk in 32/3 scoreless innings Tuesday in their 6-4 loss to the Cleveland Indians.
Vargas pitched deeper into the game than any Mariner in their seven exhibition games and has been as impressive with his poise as with his stuff. He hasn’t allowed a run in 52/3 innings in two outings.
Of the others in the running for the fifth starter job, right-hander Doug Fister had a nervous outing Monday against the Brewers and has an 11.25 ERA after two games; left-hander Garrett Olson has been a mess in his two games, allowing three hits and five walks in 12/3 innings and posting a 32.40 ERA; and left-hander Luke French, who pitched two scoreless innings in his first game, will pitch today against the Rangers.
Vargas says he doesn’t think about the fifth-starter derby.
“If you’re worrying about the big picture and what’s going on behind closed doors and who’s making decisions, that just puts added stress on you when you’re out there,” he said. “If you do that, you’re not doing yourself any favors.
“You can’t control everything. What you can control is what you can do to make yourself better and get ready for your time to pitch.”
There’s plenty of time for someone to step up and make a run at the job, or make a late nosedive and lose it. Don Wakamatsu is taking notes.
“I thought Vargas was outstanding,” Wakamatsu said. “What I liked about it is he’s in better shape than last year and it looks like his mechanics are a little tighter, and he looks confident.”
Today in camp
Mariners vs. Rangers at 12:05 p.m. (PST) at Surprise. Cliff Lee will make his first exhibition start for the Mariners and could pitch up to three innings. Also on the Mariners’ pitching list is left-handers Luke French, Garrett Olson and Chris Seddon, and right-handers Sean White and Josh Fields. Left-hander C.J. Wilson will start for the Rangers.
Of note
After an adventurous day Monday when he made an error and allowed a bouncer down the line get past him for a double, Jose Lopez had a better game at third base Tuesday. He fielded the only ball hit to him, also a big bouncer behind the bag, and made a strong throw to first base. Lopez did have a foul popup between third and the plate fall, but high winds made every ball hit in the air a challenge, and this one was ruled no play. … Matt Tuiasosopo continued to make a strong early case in his attempt to win a spot on the bench. He drew two walks in an 0-for-1 day at the plate Tuesday and played well again at shortstop. Tuiasosopo has been the most versatile Mariner so far, having started twice at shortstop, once at second base and once at third in the Mariners’ seven games. “He gives us some offensive plusses compared to some of the other guys,” Wakamatsu said. “That’s going to be a big key for him.” … Shortstop Jack Wilson has been cleared to play the past two days after having his hamstring tighten up over the weekend. Wakamatsu plans to start him today. …The Mariners plan to make their first roster cuts today, and among those expected to be headed toward the minor league camp are pitcher Nick Hill and outfielder Mike Wilson. … Closer David Aardsma pitched in the bullpen and worked on pickoff drills with no problem. He developed tightness in is groin during his first exhibition outing Thursday. … Outfielder Eric Byrnes was in the original lineup Tuesday but was sent home because he was suffering from the flu. … Nick Franklin, drafted in the first round last year, came over from the minor league side and started at second base Tuesday, becoming the youngest to play for the Mariners this year. He turned 19 on March 2. Catcher Steven Baron’s 19th birthday was Dec. 7.
Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at www.heraldnet.com/marinersblog

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