Mariners-Athletics Preview

His usual carefree self, Felix Hernandez danced in the visitors

clubhouse to his techno ”house music” Sunday.

It’s fitting that Hernandez will make his season debut and first

outing since landing a $175 million, seven-year contract against

the Oakland Athletics.

The Seattle ace always faces them to start, or so it seems to

the A’s.

”A lot,” Hernandez said with a smile. ”I’ve faced the A’s a

lot.”

Three times last season, in fact – first in the opening game in

Tokyo, again in Seattle’s 2012 Safeco Field debut, then once more

back in Oakland for the A’s home opener. The Mariners won the first

two.

That’s quite the fill of King Felix. The AL West champion A’s

will see Hernandez again Monday night to open the season at the

Oakland Coliseum, with the pitcher fresh off the new contract from

February that briefly made him baseball’s highest-paid pitcher

until Detroit’s Justin Verlander topped him Friday.

”We’re used to it,” A’s third baseman Josh Donaldson said,

chuckling. ”If there’s a team that’s used to facing Felix, it’s

us.”

Hernandez, who turns 27 on April 8, even opted to sit out the

World Baseball Classic for Venezuela to focus on this season. He

went 13-9 with a 3.06 ERA in 33 starts last season, two years after

capturing the AL Cy Young award.

”I don’t care how many times you’ve done it. Starting on

opening day never gets old,” Hernandez said. ”It’s an honor,

because there’s so much anticipation leading up to that game. It’s

an exciting time and a fun time to be on the mound. That’s

especially true against on the road against division rival, when

you know the crowd will be into it.”

If the sellout crowd is anything close to comparable to that

energized ballpark full of fans from last fall’s special run,

Hernandez will have a hard time not taking notice.

The A’s won 94 games and became the first team in major league

history to capture a division or pennant after trailing by five

games with fewer than 10 to play, stunning the two-time reigning AL

champion Texas Rangers on the season’s final day. Oakland then lost

in the deciding Game 5 of the AL division series to Detroit.

”I think everybody’s ready. We’ve been waiting for opening day

for a while now, for most of the guys here probably since the last

out was made in Game 5,” Donaldson said. ”Everybody was diligent

in the offseason getting their all their work in, now we’re just

ready for it to show.”

Hernandez will try not to allow any fanfare to throw him off on

Day 1.

”I don’t do anything different, I just come to win every

opening day,” Hernandez said a day ahead of his sixth opening day

start and fifth in a row. ”I can’t do anything different. I’ve

just got to be the same guy.”

Hernandez might need to mind Yoenis Cespedes in the middle of

the order. The Cuban homered in two of his final three spring

training games, including a three-run drive Saturday off San

Francisco starter Ryan Vogelsong in a 4-3 victory over the World

Series champion Giants.

Cespedes ended spring training on a 13-for-33 run, with all six

of his home runs and 13 RBIs over the final 11 games.

The six home runs, which came after Cespedes batted just .179 in

his first 11 games, are the most by an A’s hitter in the spring

since 2007.

”The tickets are sold. It’s going to be a great game,”

Cespedes said. ”Felix is really happy. He is a great player and

has pitched so well. But I see this A’s team as being better than

last year. We have more balance.”

Oakland sure hopes to carry over some momentum from what it

accomplished in October, with a more experienced starting rotation

to boot.

”I just think a lot of it has to do with confidence. Going into

last year we knew that we could win but we hadn’t,” Donaldson

said. ”Last year, especially in the second half on, the success

that we did have shows that we have a good team here and we have

the talent and a good staff. We’re ready to get out there and go,

and win some games.”

Typically, the pitchers are considered to be ahead of the

hitters in the season’s early stage. The A’s hope they can

challenge Hernandez, anyway.

”What’s new, right?” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. ”We had

like three Day 1s with him last year. There’s good pitching in our

division. He may be at the forefront of that. It’s our draw. It

seems like since I’ve been here we open up against Seattle and we

get him. It’s part of the deal.”

Hernandez is as eager as everybody else to get going.

”I’m really prepared. Well, finely spring training is over, it

was a long one,” Hernandez said. ”I feel as comfortable as I ever

have going into this opening day. I trust the hitters we have and

the guys playing behind me. I’m getting dialed in and ready for

another season. I love playing for Seattle. I can’t wait for this

season to get started.”

AP freelance writer Scott Bair contributed to this report.