By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
ANAHEIM, Calif.— Mention to Felix Hernandez that he is about to break Randy Johnson’s club record for starts and consecutive starts by a Seattle Mariners pitcher on opening day … and he stops you.
Stops you cold.
“Not yet,” he said. “On Monday, yes. Not yet.”
The words come accompanied by a glare and, for an instant, you get an inkling of what it must be like to stand in against the King. Still, you try again.
OK, until Monday, you’re tied with Randy Johnson. Pretty good company.
“Not bad,” said Hernandez, his tone softening. “I mean, he’s a great pitcher. He’s going to in the Hall of Fame, so it’s good to be there (with him in the record book).”
Hernandez, who turns 28 on April 8, will open the Mariners’ season for the seventh time overall tonight when they play the Angels in suburban Disneyland. It will be his sixth straight opening assignment.
(Can you name the pitcher the last time Hernandez didn’t start the opener? That was exactly six years ago in Texas. If you know who it was, and you aren’t John McLaren, well done. If not, answer later.)
Johnson started six openers in a seven-year period from 1992-98. He missed 1997 when he was eased back into the rotation after undergoing surgery the previous year for a bulging disc in his back.
(Double points if you recall whom Lou Piniella started in that 1997 opener against the Yankees. That answer later, too.)
Having Hernandez to front their rotation has long been the Mariners’ chief strength. He was recently cited as the game’s best right-handed pitcher and ranked as the game’s fifth-best overall player by ESPN’s Baseball Tonight.
It’s easy (and, OK … fun) to argue the Baseball Tonight rankings, but can anyone really dispute Hernandez ranks among the game’s most dominant arms?
Consider that last year was, generally, viewed as a blah year for Hernandez at 12-10 with a 3.04 ERA in 31 starts.
Fine. He still ranked sixth in the American League in ERA, tied for the AL lead for the most ultra-quality starts (at least seven innings, two or fewer earned runs), and was fifth in strikeouts.
For those who see WAR (wins above replacement) as the ultimate gauge of overall performance, Hernandez ranked seventh among AL pitchers. (Note: currently sidelined teammate Hisashi Iwakuma was first.)
“Felix is one of the best in the game,” said new teammate Robinson Cano, who shares that distinction. “He’s one of those guys you don’t want to face.
“Everything he’s got is good — his breaking ball, change-up and slider. He’s not a guy where you can sit on one pitch.”
Manager Lloyd McClendon spent the last eight years as a coach in Detroit, which provided a regular view of another dominant right-hander: Justin Verlander.
“I think they’re different guys,” McClendon said. “Verlander is probably just a pure power guy. Felix has the ability to attack you in a lot of different ways. He can go power, and he can go finesse.
“And I would say (Hernandez’s) command is probably a little better than Justin’s … They call them stoppers for a reason. They stop losing streaks, and they start winning streaks. It’s important to have that guy.”
It’s particularly important this season for the Mariners in the opening weeks. McClendon is patching together a rotation while Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker work their way back from injuries.
The current timetable for both is mid-to-late April. So the Mariners’ immediate goal is simple: Don’t bury yourself in the first few weeks, which could be tougher than it sounds.
The schedule opens with 16 straight games against Angels, A’s and Rangers — the three teams that finished ahead of the Mariners a year ago in the AL West Division.
No favors there, Katy Feeney! (Keep reading.)
“No question,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “And we have 38 games in the first two months in our division. Having those injuries is unfortunate, but Oakland has had them. Texas has them.
“Nobody feels bad for anybody else. You feel bad for the player, but it just is what it is. We were dealt a hand that we have to handle.”
That hand starts tonight with Hernandez.
Many pitchers (non-pitchers, too) chafe at the festival atmosphere that baseball attaches to the start of its 162-game grind. It’s a change in the daily routine so ingrained in the sport — which resumes with day two.
“It’s the start of a new season,” he said, “so it’s always fun. There’s always national TV. There are a lot of eyes and ears on you. It’s good. It’s a new challenge. I love it.”
It isn’t hard to see why.
Hernandez is 4-0 with a 1.34 ERA in his six starts on opening day while allowing just 24 hits in 47 innings. He also has 41 strikeouts and just 12 walks.
Much of this domination has come against Oakland; five of Hernandez’s six starts on opening day — including the last four — came against the A’s. The only exception was a dominant 2009 opener at Minnesota.
That changes this year.
“Yes … finally,” Hernandez said with the hint of a smile. “I think they’re happier.”
(Answers: McLaren started Erik Bedard in 2010; Piniella started Jeff Fassero in 1997; Katy Feeney is Major League Baseball’s senior vice president for scheduling and club relations.)