PEORIA, Ariz. — When we last saw the Mariners, a crestfallen crowd was rising as one to recognize arguably the greatest right-handed pitcher of his generation.
Felix Hernandez had taken the mound in Game 162 with the chance to force a playoff for the second American League wild card. He did what he could, pitching brilliantly in the Mariners’ 4-1 win over the Angels. But by the time he departed with one out in the sixth inning, the 40,823 souls crammed into Safeco Field knew they were witnessing a hollow victory.
The A’s had claimed the final AL playoff spot with a win in Texas two time zones away. So the standing ovation for Hernandez was particularly poignant, inspired by equal parts gratitude and heartache. He tipped his cap. He emerged for a curtain call. And then his season was over.
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“That was amazing,” Hernandez said Monday morning, as he prepared to work out at the Mariners’ spring complex. “I still remember that. People ask me, and I’ve got no words to explain that. It was unbelievable.”
In 29 spring camps, players will speak resolutely about why 2015 will end differently than 2014. But those words are more genuine here than anywhere else because the Mariners were the only team eliminated on last season’s final day — the only team wondering about the one game during the year that was their undoing.
The anguish was even more acute because the Mariners have the second-longest postseason drought of any team in the majors — and Hernandez, in many ways, is the embodiment of it.
King Felix’s eminence has reached historic levels: He’s one of only four pitchers with at least 2,000 innings, 1,900 strikeouts and 125 wins through his age-28 season. The other three — Walter Johnson, Don Drysdale, and Bert Blyleven — are in the Hall of Fame.
“Feels good,” said a grinning Hernandez, when apprised of that information. “Feels really good. But you know what, man? I’m still 28. I’ve got a long way to go. I just ask God to be healthy, and then I can do a lot of things.”
Hernandez owns one Cy Young Award, and many believe he should have won another in 2014. (His manager, Lloyd McClendon, has been particularly outspoken on that subject.) He’s also a five-time All-Star.
And yet . . .
“What I haven’t done is be in October,” Hernandez said, matter-of-factly. “I want to do it as a team.”
As we conversed, I suggested to Hernandez that he’s the greatest pitcher with the longest wait to reach the playoffs since Roy Halladay, whose first postseason outing came in 2010, at age 33.
Hernandez grinned. He knew the story.
“Oh yeah, when he went to the Phillies?” he asked. “And he threw a no-hitter in the first game of the playoffs? That’s pretty good.”
So, the same for you?
“I’m just going to throw a good game,” he answered.
Note the choice of words: I’m going to . . . He didn’t say: I hope . . . The difference was not a consequence of Hernandez speaking in his second language. He talks about the playoffs as a certainty, not a possibility.
“It’s going to be crazy,” he said, once again shaking off would be in favor of a rhetorical fastball. “I know the fans in Seattle. That’s going to be something different. We’ve got one goal in here: to be in October. Everybody here wants to win. Lloyd wants to win. We want to win. The City of Seattle wants to be in October. That’s the main goal.”
And how might a Mariners playoff crowd compare to what the Seahawks draw across the street.
“It’s going to be almost the same,” he said. “Seahawks (games are) crazy. But it’s the same fans, so it’s going to be almost the same.”
Hernandez, who reported to camp in terrific shape, is one of a select few pitchers capable of equaling Madison Bumgarner’s effort for the Giants last October. Hernandez has thrown the most innings of any pitcher in the majors since 2006, and he’s shown big-moment moxie despite the lack of postseason opportunities.
Interestingly, Hernandez said he didn’t see much of Bumgarner’s heroics during the 2014 postseason; he was traveling with his family in Turkey, Austria and the Czech Republic at the time. When I asked Hernandez whether he could win Games 1 and 5 of a World Series and then earn the save in Game 7, he was incredulous — but not for the reason you’d expect.
“With the bullpen we’ve got?!” he exclaimed to me. “We’ll see. We’ve got a great bullpen.”
He’s right, of course. Then again, he’s never experienced a Game 7, to say nothing of a Game 1. I can imagine his stalking McClendon in the dugout, insisting that he be allowed to put on his spikes and head out to the bullpen . . .
“I’ve got to be in October first,” King Felix said, “and then we’ll see what happens.”