SHANNON DRAYER

Felix ‘about as good’ as possible in return to in-game action for Mariners

Mar 19, 2018, 6:18 PM | Updated: Mar 20, 2018, 2:53 pm

Felix Hernandez had a strong showing and added a twist to his repertoire on Monday. (AP)...

Felix Hernandez had a strong showing and added a twist to his repertoire on Monday. (AP)

(AP)

PEORIA, Ariz. – Felix Hernandez has made starts in minor league games during spring training for years, so pitching on a back field Monday to unfamiliar faces was not an unfamiliar situation for him. What was different, however, was the intensity.

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In other years, Felix made minor league starts on days where the Mariners were scheduled to face division rivals with the idea being to not give the opposition extra looks at starters in games that mean nothing. In those games Felix would sometimes get knocked around a bit, though it was of little concern to him as he believed that minor leaguers were going to be more aggressive off him. They might take their hacks, but it was OK as long as he got his work in.

Monday was different.

Monday was about showing he could get ready for the regular season in two starts after taking a line drive off his elbow earlier in spring training.

It was about more than the pitch count. It was about more than having all of his pitches working. It was about showing he was ready to take the next step, make the adjustments he needed to make with the stuff he now has, to better utilize his pitches, and perhaps throw in a twist.

He did all of the above in his three innings pitched against the Padres’ Triple-A team.

“I thought Felix threw the ball great. It was about as good as I could imagine it being the first time in quite awhile,” manager Scott Servais said.

Mike Zunino, who caught Felix, took it one step further.

“Felix looked great,” he said. “As under control, as balanced, as effortless as I have seen him in quite some time. He knows it too. I think he knows when he can go back and reach and get more but I think he is truly pitching, working the ball back and forth, mixing all of his pitches.”

As for Felix himself?

“That was good. I was finally on the mound. Yes!” he said.

The positive outing, which was watched by Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto, earned Felix another start that would keep him in line to pitch on opening day.

“He will make his next start on Saturday,” said Servais, pointing out that the Cubs will present a bigger challenge than what Felix faced on the back field. “It will be a good test for him. If he struggles to get the pitch count up in that game, then we re-adjust and go from there.”

Servais has been cautious in his comments regarding the opening day start but it would appear the ball is in Felix’s court. His spring, though shortened because of the elbow bruise, drew praise from his skipper.

“Felix has been a much different Felix in my time here in what I have seen in this spring training,” Servais said. “I think he is in better shape, his workouts have been a little different, he has been a little different, much more diligent in what your are seeing. Mentally he is engaged. He wants to make a difference. He wants to have a bounce-back season.”

Felix looked sharp Monday afternoon, striking out two batters in his first inning and, more impressively, striking out two more in his third and final inning.

Having surrendered a run on a leadoff triple followed by a single, the runner on first did not advance.

“Everything was in place,” Felix said. “Good curveball. Good changeup. Command. Everything was in control, it was good.”

Felix also added a little something extra by utilizing a quick pitch, or shortened delivery, that helped him to his second strikeout of the game. Servais has encouraged his pitchers to try and disrupt hitters timing and Felix clearly has something new up his sleeve.

“He’s buying in a little bit,” said Zunino with a big smile. “I think he is having a little more fun with it than some guys because he knows with (pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr.), all eyes are on him. So he knows when he does something, he knows Mel is going to going to give him some feedback. Just another thing to put in the tool belt for him. Obviously when you face these guys in our division so many times he will be able to just sort of mix that up and hopefully disrupt them just enough.”

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While Felix was drawing the lion’s (or King’s) share of attention pitching three innings on one field, his competition for the opening day start was throwing in a game on the next. James Paxton threw six innings against the Padres’ Double-A team, giving up one run on three hits, walking two and striking out nine. He got his pitch count up to 82 pitches and should be ready to throw over 100 pitches in the opening series against Cleveland.

“Everything felt good,” Paxton said. “I moved the ball around pretty well. It was a step in the right direction, keep on going. It was good today.”

While he had his work to concentrate on, Paxton was glad to hear that Felix had a successful return.

“That’s good news for us,” he said. “I heard that Felix had a great day today and that’s exactly what we need. We need that guy big time on this team and hopefully he will be ready to go at the start of the season.”

Good day for Paxton, good day for Felix and, as a bonus, a good day for Hisashi Iwakuma as well. As the media was talking to Servais about his No. 1 and 2 starters, behind the group Kuma very quietly took the bullpen mound for the first time since shoulder surgery in September.

Iwakuma threw 10 pitches from the mound, a light throwing session just to get the feel. He should throw his first bullpen on Sunday.

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