Getting late on a Friday night in Scottsdale, Ariz., Felix Hernandez half-leaned, half-slumped against a cinderblock wall in a tiny locker room that served as a way station between the pitcher's mound and the luxury bus. Unless that idling white Escalade in the tunnel, the driver brushing crumbs from his starchy shirt, was waiting on him.
Under starless skies and against a stern desert breeze, Hernandez had pitched his four innings. On his way off the field, he'd waved happily to the crowd, caught up on old times with an umpire, and threatened to take over in center field. At 27, nearing the start of his 10th big-league season, sneaking up on 2,000 innings, Hernandez remains a joyful experience; the way he dances across the foul line, the way he commands the moment, the way he snaps at the ball when it returns from his catcher, the way he pours himself into the game. Even here, on a night that meant nothing more than a few dozen practice pitches and one calendar page, Felix couldn't help but be Felix.
"Man," he said, "you ask a lot of questions."
He was all tangled up in tan bandage wraps, angled and stretched and tucked to keep the ice secure. His eyes were playful. He'd come to say he felt good, all systems go, threw some good fastballs and changeups, on schedule. And now this. What about the Seattle Mariners? Can they be any good? Can they win? What makes you so sure?
"Looks pretty good," he said.
He'd of course said the same last year. And the year before. And, well …
"I'm not going to answer then," he said.
Nah. He laughed.
"I believe in this team," he said. "We can be good."
There are a lot of questions. More than most. On the day he first held up his new Mariners jersey, Lloyd McClendon was asked what drew him to the job and he'd said, "Felix, Felix, Felix."
Were the only issue his starter in game four.
Five weeks after, the Mariners attached themselves to Robinson Cano for the next 10 years and $240 million. Everyone asked what else – more questions – and there was Corey Hart and Logan Morrison and John Buck and Willie Bloomquist, along with Fernando Rodney and Scott Baker, but not Nelson Cruz or, so far, Kendrys Morales. Hisashi Iwakuma hasn't pitched yet because of a strained tendon on the finger of his pitching hand and the prospect Taijuan Walker has a sore shoulder, though he seems to be recovering.
And then there's Felix, Felix, Felix, healthy and confident, the soul of the franchise. He spent all of January with a trainer in his native Venezuela, the same guy Pablo Sandoval employs, getting stronger, his goal in those final reps of September and, hell, you never know, October.
He hadn't liked the way his body felt in the final weeks of last season. Though he pitched 200-plus innings for the sixth consecutive year, had 200-plus strikeouts for the fifth straight season and his ERA (3.04) was about where it was the season before, his ERA was 4.11 in the second half because of a 5.82 August and a stretch of five atypical starts in which he allowed 22 runs in 27 innings. A strained oblique muscle limited him to three September starts.
Twice since he broke in has Hernandez pitched on a team that didn't finish in fourth place in the AL West. Most of the time, that's meant last place. The Houston Astros saved him – them – last year.
So, yeah, questions. The front office. Another new manager. The roster. The identity of the man who will protect Cano. The identities of the men Cano will drive in. And whether any of that will allow them to be anything but the fourth-place Mariners, and if one day – one day soon – Felix Hernandez might throw his first postseason pitch.
"That's my goal," he said, because of course it is, because it must stink to go home every October and do little but watch playoff baseball when your arm feels so good.
None of that gets answered out among the cinderblocks at Salt River Fields. Hernandez went four innings, allowed two hits, threw a few exceedingly nasty changeups, leaned against a wall, then forgave the intrusive questions that could not be answered in March.
All in all, the Mariners have enjoyed a decent spring. The injuries to Iwakuma and Walker aside. They've won a bunch of games, which is fine, but then so have the Miami Marlins.
Asked what exactly makes him optimistic that this could be the season that breaks the organizational trend, Hernandez said, "We're having fun. We're having a lot of fun." As though that was something new to him. To them.
Maybe that's something, you never know. We'll find out soon enough. There's a whole season waiting. Until then, there's progress, there's hope, there's some reason to believe. But, man, so many questions.
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