EVERETT — When Felix Hernandez returns to Everett — the place where his professional career started — he revels in the experience: the chants and cheers as he struts to complete his pregame bullpen, the fans clamoring for autographs.
But for the King, hardly anything beats making an impact on Seattle Mariners minor-leaguers.
Hernandez was as sharp as a tack in his second rehab start for the Everett AquaSox on Wednesday, striking out eight and allowing only one hit in four innings of work in the AquaSox’s 5-1 win over Tri-City at Funko Field.
“I felt pretty good, man. I felt really, really good,” Hernandez said. “All my pitches were sharp. I was commanding (the strike zone), good curveball, good changeup, good sinker. Other than that, I’m healthy.”
For many fans in the Pacific Northwest, this could be one of the last times they see Hernandez pitch for the Mariners organization. On the final year of a seven-year, $175 million deal, it’s more than likely the Mariners will decline their team option on his contract for 2020. Hernandez has struggled to stay healthy and he’s struggled when he’s been on the mound this season, compiling a 6.52 ERA in eight starts.
But Hernandez doesn’t let the negative outlook on his career impede the impact he makes on the minor-leaguers whose futures are still pending.
“I want to teach them how to be professionals,” Hernandez said. “When you go to the big leagues and you come back and do a rehab, that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
During Hernandez’s first rehab start at Funko Field, players said he hung out in the clubhouse well after the game was over, snapping pictures with players and signing autographs. He even gave away his teal glove that he pitched with to right-hander Travis Kuhn and his game-worn cleats to Brayan Perez. During the game, Hernandez chopped it up with the young Sox pitching staff, providing pointers.
That’s not typical for every big-leaguer on a minor-league rehab assignment. Many throw their allotted innings and get out of Dodge.
But Hernandez, a multi-millionaire, goes above and beyond.
“It’s awesome for our guys and something I’m sure they appreciate,” AquaSox manager Louis Boyd said. “I remember walking into the clubhouse after the game, and he was sitting in the clubhouse. In my mind, I was completely shocked, thinking that he’d get his innings in, get his treatment and go home. But he stayed around.”
Even the visiting team revels in the experience of facing a pitching legend such as Hernandez. According to Tri-City play-by-play broadcaster Chris King, the Dust Devils position players swarmed the lineup card when it was posted in the visiting clubhouse, hoping they would get a chance to face a former American League Cy Young winner. Players aren’t always that eager to catch a peak at the lineup.
Hernandez’s immediate future is uncertain. After pitching for Everett on Wednesday, Hernandez could be ready for a rehab start with Triple-A Tacoma — although he was uncertain what his next step would be. If that goes to plan, Hernandez may be ready to rejoin the big-league rotation.
But even with his time with the organization seemingly ending, Hernandez hasn’t forgot his roots. After signing autographs and posing for pictures on the concourse with fans for about 20 minutes following his exit from the field, he linked up with his host family from when he was in Everett as a 17-year-old in 2003 — Kathy Chapman, her daughter Liz and her granddaughters Jazmyn and Dezirae.
While many would love to see him return to Seattle, none of that matters to the AquaSox players in the grand scheme. His presence and graciousness toward them is an experience they won’t forget.
“It’s super cool,” said AquaSox starting pitcher Damon Casetta-Stubbs, a Vancouver, Washington, native who grew up a huge Mariners fan. “It puts a face to a name, you know, that everyone in this clubhouse has always idolized. … Just to get to know him and see him as a person and notice that he’s a good guy, sometimes you see those guys come through and it ruins your perspective of them. But Felix is a good dude.
“He’s what we all want to be when it comes to autographs and staying late. The idea of wanting to stay behind and sign every autograph, he actually does that. It’s cool to see.”
The AquaSox gave Hernandez some early run support, first on Robert Perez Jr. scoring on a passed ball in the second. Everett tacked on two more runs in the third whenMiguel Perez scored on a fielding error by Tri-City left fielder Sean Guilbe and Utah Jones scored on a wild pitch from Jason Blanchard.
Juan Camacho launched a solo homer in the sixth and Miguel Perez added an RBI triple to right to put Everett ahead 5-0 in the sixth.
Jake Gatewood scored Tri-City’s only run on a RBI single in the ninth.
The AquaSox pulled within a game of first place in the Northwest League’s second-half North Division standings. Boyd was less fixated on the improvement in the standings than he was Hernandez’s start.
“We try and keep the standings out of it. It’s all about playing well, playing good baseball and playing it the right way,” Boyd said. “Having Felix pitch the way he was to start the first four innings was phenomenal. I made sure I took a second to sincerely enjoy what I was watching. That doesn’t happen everyday where you get to see a guy that’s done everything in the game of baseball. He looked extremely sharp with all pitches and I know our guys loved it too.”
The only glum moment in Wednesday’s matchup for Everett was Brandon Williamson leaving with AquaSox trainer Amanda Lee after a warmup pitch. Williamson whiffed a pair in his only inning of work before being taken out. Boyd didn’t provide an update on Williamson.
Josh Horton covers the AquaSox for the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter, @joshhortonEDH