EVERETT — Cheered on by a sellout crowd of 5,189, many of them clad in yellow “King’s Court” t-shirts and hoisting yellow “K” cards, pitcher Felix Hernandez made a triumphant return to Everett Memorial Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
And if his performance in a rehab start was less than exceptional — 32⁄3 innings, six hits, three runs all earned — in an eventual 7-6 Everett AquaSox victory over Spokane, the festive atmosphere was off the charts.
Hernandez, the Seattle Mariners ace and a six-time major-league All-Star, was cheered as he arrived on the field for his pregame warmup. He was cheered when he took the mound to start the game. He was cheered after each of his six strikeouts. And he was cheered a final time with a standing ovation as he left the game, having reached a pitch count of 59 in the fourth inning.
“It felt good,” Hernandez said of his outing. “I had a mechanical problem a little bit and didn’t feel comfortable, but it was OK. I wasn’t sharp, though. … I should’ve thrown four innings, (nothing but) zeroes, so I’m a little disappointed.”
Hernandez clearly showed the effects of a layoff that is upward of six weeks. He last pitched in a May 27 game against Minnesota and then went on the disabled list June 1 with a strained right calf muscle. On Wednesday, he threw a simulated game in preparation for his Everett start.
“It was fun to be out there again,” he said.
No question, Hernandez also enjoyed his homecoming to Everett, where he began his pro career in 2003. Before the game he was reunited with his Everett host family from that season “and the (daughter) was about 6 when I met her and now she’s way big.”
Likewise, the noisy reception by the stadium crowd “was awesome. That was pretty cool,” he said.
Hernandez showed up in the Everett locker room prior to the game, “and he just came in like one of the guys,” said AquaSox manager Rob Mummau.
Were his players just a little bit starstruck? “Deep down inside, probably a little bit,” Mummau said with a smile. “Any time you get somebody like that, of his caliber, in the clubhouse, it’s pretty special.”
Hernandez had no trouble in his first inning, getting three quick outs with two strikeouts on just 10 pitches. The Indians got an infield single in the second, then two more hits in the third for their first run. But in the fourth Hernandez began to labor, giving up a walk and two singles to open the inning. He got a strikeout, gave up a run-scoring single and then a run-scoring infield out, and when he walked the next batter his day was done.
As Everett pitching coach Moises Hernandez, who also happens to be Felix Hernandez’s brother, came to the mound for the pitching change, the pitcher feigned a look of anger. Then he smiled, gave his brother a hug, gave Everett catcher Yojhan Quevedo a hug, and then doffed his hat to the crowd as he headed to the dugout.
The plan, Hernandez said, is to make another rehab start at Class AAA Tacoma on Friday and then rejoin Seattle’s starting rotation for a July 20 home game against the Chicago White Sox.
“The 20th I’ll be there on the mound at Safeco Field,” Hernandez said. “Guaranteed.”
But as Hernandez iced his arm and got ready to head home, the AquaSox were in a back-and-forth tussle with Spokane. The score was 3-3 when Hernandez left, Everett took a 4-3 lead in the fifth, the Indians tied it in the seventh, the AquaSox went up 5-4 in the bottom of the seventh, and Spokane went ahead 6-5 in the top of the eighth on a two-run home run by Darius Day.
But in the bottom of the ninth Everett got leadoff singles from Austin Grebeck and Bryson Brigman, and then a two-strike sacrifice bunt from Donnie Walton. Kyle Lewis, the Mariners’ first-round draft pick in early June, followed with a drive to right-center field that just eluded Day and rolled to the wall, allowing Grebeck and Brigman to score easily with the winning runs and setting off a jubilant celebration around Lewis.
The Everett players “persevered,” Mummau said. “We had some things go against us, but that’s baseball. But they persevered and came out with a W, so that’s great.”
Lewis, meanwhile, finished the game 3-for-5 with a run scored and four RBI.
“He’s a special kid,” Mummau said. “He can do a lot of things. Offensively, defensively and he can run. He just stands out.”