Happy Felix Day!
It used to be not just a statement, but an exclamation. A celebration of a truly transcendent talent who was worth watching every time he pitched. Even when Jack Cust was the DH.
Happy Felix Day?
It is now a question. A mystery. Something we wait and watch and worry about. Used to be the biggest uncertainty was whether the Mariners’ ace would leave for a better franchise. Now, it’s whether he’ll last past the fifth inning when his turn in the rotation comes up.
He did on Tuesday night in Kansas City. He looked pretty good, too. Not great. Not like that season-opening start against Cleveland. But not bad. Not like the game in San Francisco when he gave up eight runs, including three home runs.
Felix pitched into the sixth inning against the Royals. It wasn’t always pretty. He labored through a 25-pitch first inning, giving up a double to somebody named Whit Merrifield. Felix showed better command this start, walking only one. He also had a fourth-inning curveball was crushed by Mike Moustakas, resulting in a two-run homer.
He left the game with two outs in the sixth inning, two runners on and his team leading by five runs in what was a certifiably good start for a pitcher who now constitutes a specific psychological process.
Call it The Six Stages of Felix Day.
This is the result of muscle memory. The realization that it’s Felix’s turn in the rotation provides a kick of excitement. This surge of energy may spur you to bust out some baseball jargon by proclaiming Felix to be “on the hill” or “on the bump” or “toeing the slab.”
He is the one thing about Seattle baseball that we’ve been able to count on these past 10 years. He was a diamond that gleamed in spite of the dreck he has been so often surrounded with whether it was Rickie Weeks in the outfield or the Mariners starting two no-hit shortstops in the same lineup (Brendan Ryan and Jack Wilson).
You didn’t know whether the Mariners would win when he was on the hill, you just knew that if they lost, it wouldn’t be because of Felix. He was capable of magic. You hear Felix is starting and you starting thinking about sunshine and lollipops.
You remember the punctuation change. It’s not “Happy Felix Day!” so much as “Happy Felix Day?” We can’t take him for granted, and just for a minute you realize that Father Time is as relentless as he is ruthless and it’s coming for each and every one of us.
This is where you start to think that maybe this will be one of the good days. Maybe he will make the pivot in his career and remain an effective, even downright good starting pitcher without the mid-90s fastball he used to have. After all, he pitched into the sixth without allowing a run in his first start of this season. There’s got to be a chance, right? This will be the one. He’s due. Your faith will make it so.
When the game starts and you explain away warts. Last week, I found myself trying to minimize the three runs he allowed in the first inning to the Giants by saying no one hit the ball hard. Two walks. An infield single. On Tuesday night it was a 25-pitch first inning and the double from that Whit Merrifield guy, and I was thinking to myself, “Felix is just trying to find his rhythm.”
This is the reality for Hernandez now. The dominant start is the exception; it is not the expectation.
He’s not going to get strikeouts like he did before. He can’t count on opponents chasing his changeup as it dives out of the zone. He’s going to have to use his curveball more than he has, and sometimes guys are going to be sitting on it. Certainly looked like Moustakas was in the fourth when he clobbered a two-run homer. It was the fourth allowed by Felix this season.
Last season, Hernandez allowed 1.7 home runs per nine innings, the highest rate of his career. He’s allowed four home runs in the 15 innings he has pitched so far in 2018, which equates to 2.4 per nine innings.
At least that was the final stage of this start, which the Mariners won thanks in part to the eight runs they scored. But there was more than just a sense of satisfaction and hope. That is palpable relief that Felix was not bad. Way better than his last start in fact, and while no one’s going to confuse the performance as being great, it was good.
On this Tuesday in April at Kansas City, that was enough. Happy Felix Day, everyone.