King Felix is royally agitated anyway. Hernandez was tagged for seven runs in three-plus innings against the Cleveland Indians on Sunday, raising his spring ERA to 15.95 a day after Servais announced that Marco Gonzales would start Seattle's season opener against Oakland in Tokyo on March 20.
Seattle's decision ends Hernandez's run of 10 consecutive opening day starts. That was the longest active streak in the majors and tied for the fourth longest ever — Jack Morris set the mark at 14. Erik Bedard was the last starter before Hernandez to open a season on the mound for the Mariners.
Hernandez spoke publicly after the game for the first time since Servais' announcement. Asked if he was upset, Hernandez said simply, "Yeah," but declined to elaborate on his emotions. "I knew it was going to happen," he added.
Hernandez was also asked if he could have convinced Servais to give him the opening day nod with a better spring camp. "No," he said while shaking his head contemptuously. "No." It's the latest disappointment during Hernandez's years-long slide from stardom. Once a 19-year-old phenom, the 32-year-old has been losing fastball velocity since his mid-20s and been mostly hobbled and ineffective since turning 30. His ailments have been many. Among the disclosed: lower back stiffness, right biceps tendinitis, right shoulder inflammation, a strained right calf — and that only covers the past three seasons.
He had a career-worst 5.55 ERA in 29 games last season and was briefly removed from the rotation for the first time in the majors. This is his final season of a $175 million, seven-year contract. Armed with a dastardly, dive-bombing changeup, Hernandez won 19 games in 2009, the Cy Young Award in 2010 and made six All-Star teams. He has been the face of the franchise, and his King's Court fan section in Seattle was once among baseball's hottest tickets.
But even his ascent was tinged with frustration. The Mariners were seldom a contender, and Hernandez has never pitched in a playoff game. After Seattle traded away some key major leaguers this winter, it seems unlikely he ever will, at least for the Mariners.
Reverence for Hernandez remains apparent. In the home clubhouse at Peoria Sports Complex earlier this week, King Felix held court near his locker, eating fried chicken and chatting jovially from an oversized, futuristic armchair, teammates seated around him on folding chairs.
Opening day without Hernandez? It's hard to fathom. "Certainly respect," Servais said Saturday of Hernandez's streak. "It was a tremendous run, and he's done awesome things. I just think where we're at right now organizationally and where he's at, he wants to have a big year and this does give him more time to prepare for his first regular-season start.
"But that doesn't make it any easier. But again, we try to take as much of the emotion out of it as you can and do what's best for our ballclub." The Mariners have asked Hernandez to use his curveball more this spring, especially early in counts, because data suggests it's the right-hander's most effective pitch. Hernandez used the breaking ball often during a 1-2-3 first inning but got away from it as the game wore on.
"He needs to continue to work that in," Servais said. "It's one of his best pitches. Didn't go to it today." Hernandez will start one of two exhibition games against the Yomiuri Giants in Tokyo prior to the opener. Seattle returns to the U.S. and opens a four-game home set against the reigning World Series champion Boston Red Sox a week later. It seems likely Hernandez will start one of those games, but not certain.
NOTES: 3B Kyle Seager is awaiting MRI results after rolling over his left wrist during a game Friday. X-rays of his hand and wrist were negative. ... RHP Gerson Bautista appeared to injure his shoulder throwing a pitch in Seattle's other spit-squad game against the Angels. Servais, who was with the team in Peoria for the 16-2 loss to Cleveland, did not have an update on Bautista's status. ... OF Mallex Smith (strained right elbow) felt good after swinging in a cage Saturday and might take batting practice Monday. ... RHP Hunter Strickland (lower-back tightness) was expected to play catch Sunday and be evaluated after. ... Seattle announced that all 23 pre-arbitration eligible players on the roster had signed 2019 contracts. ... The Mariners re-assigned five players to minor league camp: RHPs Ryan Garton, Tyler Danish and Robinson Leyer; LHP Matt Tenuta; and OF Dom Thompson-Williams.
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