SEATTLE — In case anyone still needed a reminder that spring-training stats don’t mean much, Felix Hernandez was happy to serve notice of that Monday afternoon.
After posting a 0-3 record and a 10.22 ERA in four Cactus League starts, the Seattle Mariners’ ace looked like, well, an ace when it mattered, baffling Angels hitters for seven innings to lead the Mariners to a 4-1 Opening Day victory at Safeco Field.
“I keep telling you guys that,” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said when asked about spring numbers.
Now if only Hernandez could do something about that Mike Trout fellow — who for the second year in a row homered off Hernandez in his first at-bat of the season — then he’d really be onto something. But after Hernandez caught a bit too much of the plate with that first-inning fastball, a pitch Trout deposited over the center-field fence, he dominated the Angels, MVP center fielder included, the rest of the afternoon. In improving to 6-0 on Opening Day, Hernandez allowed just one hit after Trout’s home run, and struck out 10, including Trout twice.
“What do you think?” Hernandez said when asked about his afternoon. “It was pretty good, except that homer in the first inning. After that, it was working — good pitches, great curveball, great changeup and excellent fastball.”
“Pretty good” has long been Hernandez’s go-to description for any positive outing, but this one, like so many others, was much, much better than “pretty good.” As the Mariners begin a 2015 season full of lofty expectations, they are legitimate contenders in large part because of the star who never wanted to leave. Before the Mariners signed Robinson Cano or Nelson Cruz, and before any of the young talent had proven anything, Hernandez decided before the 2013 season that he would remain the face of the franchise for its foreseeable, and at that point very murky future. He, along with some promising minor leaguers, was the only reason for optimism for fans of a team that hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2001.
And on that February day, an emotional Hernandez declared, “To all the people in Seattle that trust me and believe in me, I will say this: I will not disappoint you.”
Over the past two seasons, Hernandez has backed up those words, and he did so again Monday, only adding to the already high levels of optimism around this team. Those ugly spring training numbers weren’t the real Felix. The real Felix is the player who again looked like a Cy Young Award front-runner on Monday; the player who can make players named Trout and Pujols flail helplessly at changeups in the dirt.
“It’s Felix,” Mariners catcher Mike Zunino said. “You know what you’re going to get once the season rolls around. There’s more focus, there’s more intensity, there’s the adrenaline he thrives on. You know he’s going to rise to the occasion, and he showed that today.”
Hernandez was looking forward to this start because, for the first time since 2008, the Mariners were opening at home, which meant a sellout crowd of 45,909, many of them in yellow “King’s Court” shirts creating a memorable atmosphere.
“That was amazing,” Hernandez said. “That was unbelievable. It was a great experience. Fans were unbelievable, it was awesome.”
Told he was undefeated on Opening Day, Hernandez knocked twice on the table in front of him, then said, “I don’t know. It’s a great challenge. You’ve got a lot of eyes on you, so you’ve got to do good.”
If Hernandez is this dialed in for a big crowd on Opening Day, imagine what he might do in a playoff start. Now more than ever, after seeing Hernandez baffle Angels hitters with vintage stuff, and after seeing a much deeper lineup come up with 10 hits despite a combined 1-for-12 day for All-Stars Cano, Cruz and Kyle Seager, the idea of Hernandez and the Mariners playing on a postseason stage seemed more likely than ever Monday afternoon.
Herald Columnist John Boyle: email@example.com