Mariners’ Felix Hernandez says he’ll be King again, but it won’t be easy

Oct 2, 2016, 6:54 PM | Updated: 7:27 pm
Franklin Gutierrez consoles Felix Hernandez after the A's defeated the Mariners 9-8 Saturday. (AP)...
Franklin Gutierrez consoles Felix Hernandez after the A's defeated the Mariners 9-8 Saturday. (AP)

The Mariners ended the season with a 3-2 loss to the A’s on Sunday. The outcome was not terribly surprising considering the quick turnaround with a 12:10 start, which was hardly ample recovery time from what had happened the night before.

“Certainly we didn’t have a lot of wind in our sails,” manager Scott Servais admitted following game No. 162. “Last night, the run we have been on, it took a lot out of everybody physically and emotionally.”

Perhaps no one felt the emotion more so that the guy who started the last game: Felix Hernandez, who for the 12th straight season saw his year end without a trip to the postseason.

Following the game Saturday night, Felix lingered the longest in the dugout, sitting on the bench, head down while good friend Franklin Gutierrez waited for him at the top of the stairs to the clubhouse.

How much did Felix want to see his team shake hands at the end of a win Saturday night? So much so that he returned to the dugout after Nelson Cruz’s home run tied it. He had changed out of his uniform an inning earlier to head home and get extra rest before his Sunday start. When he heard the boom, the uniform was put back on and Felix was back on the top step.

“Yesterday was tough,” he said after the game Sunday. “It hurt a lot. I did not sleep.”

Felix was given the option to not pitch the final game but he felt it was important he do so for the fans. He pitched three innings, giving up three earned runs to finish his season with an 11-8 record and 3.82 ERA. Not a typical Felix year by any means.

“It hasn’t been a great season for Felix,” Servais said. “Certainly when we missed him – the 6-7 weeks he was out – it really hurt. The ability to go deep in games, the innings he is able to take on. To do that he is going to have to make a few adjustments in the offseason and come into spring training in a little better shape, a little more urgency because we need him at the top of the rotation. He has history of doing that but he is kind of at the point of his career where he is going to need to make adjustments to do that.”

Felix is a player who has always trusted and believed in his routines, be it in season or out, and in that is sometimes resistant or slow to change. This offseason will be different. While not wanting to admit age could be a factor for the inconsistencies we saw and instead pointing to the calf injury he suffered this year and the time he lost, he did admit that he needed to get stronger.

“Yeah, I do,” he answered when asked if he felt this was necessary. “For my legs. Not a lot, nothing extreme, but a different workout.”

In recent years Felix has started his intense workouts with his trainer upon his return to Venezuela, typically around the start of December. This year will most likely be different as he intends to pitch for his country in the World Baseball Classic next spring. That will move up the clock for his workouts and a couple of winter ball tuneups, something he has not done since 2003.

Pitching in the WBC is important to him, but more important is getting back to himself. I asked what it would mean to him to put up a more “Felix-ish” season after the last two seasons.

“I need it a lot,” he said. “The last few years have not been Felix years. I am prepared for (the work). I am going to go there and show everybody in the world, if they don’t believe in me, that I am going to be King Felix again.”

As Servais mentioned, the Mariners will need that next year. The starting pitching free-agent market is ridiculously thin and it is hard to imagine many, if any, aces will be available – let alone top-tier guys. Felix needs to be the guy, and after a second sub-Felix year, he realizes he needs to make changes.

An improved Felix who is able to stay healthy throughout the year could be the most important addition to the 2017 team.

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Mariners’ Felix Hernandez says he’ll be King again, but it won’t be easy