Mariners give Felix Opening Day nod
Righty will become youngest to open season in club history
PEORIA, Ariz. -- When right-hander Felix Hernandez walked off the mound on Friday afternoon, he became the answer to a future Mariners trivia question.On April 2 at Safeco Field, the 20-year-old star in the making will become the youngest Opening Day starting pitcher in franchise history -- five years younger than Mike Moore was in 1985, when he made the first of his three Opening Day starts. A scenario that seemingly has been written in ink since the day pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training became official halfway through the sixth inning on Friday when manager Mike Hargrove told Hernandez that he would be the Mariners' Opening Day starter against the Athletics. "He told me, 'Good outing,' and I said, 'Thank you,'" Hernandez said. "Then he told me, 'Do that on Opening Day.'" The news brought a huge smile to Hernandez's face. "For me, it's one of the greatest things of my life," he said after the Mariners' 10-6 Cactus League victory over the Angels at jam-packed Peoria Sports Complex. "To pitch Opening Day is one of the best things for a starting pitcher." Hernandez will become the first right-hander to start a Mariners opener since 2003, when his idol, Freddy Garcia, started against the Athletics in Oakland. Lefty Jamie Moyer had started Seattle's past three openers -- all in Seattle. The difference between one season and the next turns out to be 23 years. Moyer was 43 last April. And now, it's Hernandez's turn to pursue a legacy that compares to other successful pitchers in franchise history, perhaps even greater than those of Garcia, Moore, Moyer, Randy Johnson and Mark Langston. For sure, Friday's announcement signaled a new, higher, status for Hernandez.
"This kid came into camp with a great attitude, in great shape and he's thrown the ball real well all spring," Hargrove said. "He never came in and talked to me about it, but I know he wanted this. I think he has earned it. He has all the characteristics of a big-time winner. Maybe we can push that along a little bit."And with that, the hurler knew he had accomplished something special -- one year earlier than even he expected. "I thought maybe next year I would be the Opening Day starter, not this year," Hernandez said. "But I have worked hard for this. All of Spring Training, and all the work I did during the offseason. I worked a lot for this." Hernandez, who posted a 12-14 record and 4.52 ERA a year ago in his first big-league season, shed more than 20 pounds during the offseason and reported to camp in terrific shape. He has been dominant at times -- like the first two innings he pitched on Friday, when none of the first six batters got the ball out of the infield. The fact that he wobbled in the third and fourth innings, when he fell behind hitters and surrendered six hits and four runs, did not alter Hargrove's decision to go with Hernandez in the opener. "I wanted to be as sure as I possibly could," said Hargrove. "Not if he, physically, could handle being the Opening Day starter, but, mentally, if he could handle it. Pitching is more than a matter of stuff. "The last part of last season and this spring, he has pitched well and has pitched under control." Those are good traits, but Hernandez also has the best talent among the starters. "He's our guy," first baseman Richie Sexson said. "He has been in the big leagues for a little while, and we feel he can take over that role now. It's nice to have a guy throwing a hundred-million miles an hour on the first day of the season. That makes it tough on the other team." With the staff-ace tag comes a huge responsibility. "I want him to understand that along with starting Opening Day comes the fact that you're expected to show up every time that you go out on the field, and you can't mentally take days off," Hargrove said. "That is probably the No. 1 problem with most young [pitchers]." The slimmer, trimmer Hernandez said he realizes that he has to lead the pitching staff out of the American League West basement the Mariners have occupied the past three seasons. "You have to go out and do the best you can every game," he said.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.