TEMPE, Ariz. — Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais didn’t just say it.
Nothing like, “Felix Hernandez, you’re the Mariners’ 2018 Opening Day starter.”
But King Felix is certainly back in the running with James Paxton for that honor.
Both Hernandez and Paxton pitched in minor-league spring training games on Monday, setting up for another start before the real games begin on March 29. Only one, however, can take the Safeco Field mound against the Cleveland Indians on Opening Day.
Servais said Hernandez, who is healing from a line drive off his right forearm in his only competition against a major-league team this spring, is set for a Saturday start against the Cubs in Peoria. That would then give him regular four days rest before the regular-season opener.
Hernandez has started on Opening Day nine consecutive times — the longest active streak in baseball. Could it be 10?
“My conversation was he has to be very honest with us and us with him with what we’re seeing,” Servais said. “If he is able to make the Opening Day start, we’re not looking for him to go out there and throw 100 pitches. If he can get 75-80 pitches and get five really good innings and turn it over to the bullpen — we’ll see.
“We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves, but that’s kind of the plan looking into this thing because he’s not going to be ready to go out and throw 100 pitches. We have to be smart. But he looks very healthy to me.”
Granted, Hernandez has thrown just 11⁄3 innings before Monday’s effort thanks to a line drive off the bat of the Cubs’ Victor Caratini in the second inning on Feb. 26. Pitching against the San Diego Padres’ Triple-A team, Hernandez allowed one run in three innings, striking out five. He gave up three hits and a walk.
And, Hernandez got tested on his fielding, too. He had one sharp grounder come his way in the second inning of this one.
“A little scary with the comebacker,” said Hernandez, who threw 38 pitches.
Otherwise, Hernandez said he felt “really good.”
“I feel fine,” he said, “and I’m happy to be back on the mound and to get back on the mound five days later.”
Servais seemed almost giddy.
“I thought Felix threw the ball great,” Servais said. “I was really happy with what I saw. I liked the life on his pitches, the execution of his pitches, his changeup looked good, he worked on some other things in his delivery that I thought looked excellent. About as good as it could be with it being his first time in quite a while.”
But that’s who Hernandez is, Servais said.
“I’m going to go out there and compete,” Hernandez said about pitching after the four-week layoff. “I just felt really good. Everything was in place, good curveball, good changeup, good command. Everything was on.”
Servais said Felix had also looked good in his bullpen sessions leading up to the start.
“And I thought his third-inning stuff was just as good as it was in the first inning — which is a good sign,” Servais said.
Meanwhile, against Double-A competition, Paxton put up some impressive numbers. The left-hander went six innings, allowing one run on three hits with nine strikeouts and two walks.
“One more start and I’ll be ready to go,” Paxton said.
At this point, the key is getting his breaking pitches on point, specifically gaining some ground with his cutter.
Paxton said he’s slated to throw about 95 pitches in his next start, which has yet to be determined.
“And just planning on trying to dial it in a little bit more,” he said. “And trying to ramp it up toward the season here.”
Servais was pleased, if not ecstatic, with what he saw from Paxton.
“Paxton looks fine and the velocity and the stuff was all there,” Servais said. “Pax has a history of not doing great in those backfield games, but getting his pitches in — he looks fine.”
Regardles of who pitches first in the rotation, count on Hernandez and Paxton to be a part of it.
Mike Leake seems guaranteed of that No. 3 slot in the rotation.
Then there’s left-hander Marco Gonzales, who is out of minor league options and has had a solid spring — five starts, a 1.10 ERA (two earned runs in 16 1/3 innings) with 13 strikeouts and six walks. Gonzales took a line drive off his right hand on March 12, but tests showed no broken bones, luckily for Seattle.
Erasmo Ramirez probably could have been counted on to make the Opening Day roster but he has missed the past month with a strained right lat and won’t be ready for the beginning of the season.
So Ariel Miranda would likely get the nod for the No. 5 spot in the rotation — but with three off days in their first eight days of the regular season the Mariners could get away with starting the season with four starters and using the extra roster spot for bullpen depth or keeping an extra position player (maybe a backup first baseman).