NORTH PORT, Fla. — I had to see the King one last time. I watched Felix Hernandez’s final start with the Mariners in September on television, an emotional farewell to the city and fans he pitched in front of for 15 seasons. The King’s Court, his personal cheering section all clad in yellow T-shirts, gave him a loud ovation as he exited the game, and Felix wiped tears from his eyes with both shirt sleeves as he gave the crowd a final wave of his cap.
It was a goodbye to Seattle, and it also felt like a potential goodbye to his baseball career.
But here we are, in one of those new Florida communities popping up everywhere between Tampa and Naples, with a ballpark and complex dug out of the Florida swamp, and Felix Hernandez is pitching in a spring training night game for the Atlanta Braves against the Boston Red Sox. It’s a long way from the corner of Edgar Martinez Drive and Dave Niehaus Way.
“Spring training is a time to think about being young again,” Ernie Banks once said.
As I watched Hernandez pitch with “Braves” stitched across the front of his jersey instead of “Mariners,” I couldn’t help but think back to 2005, when Hernandez reached the majors as a 19-year-old wunderkind from Venezuela with a 96 mph fastball — back when everyone wasn’t throwing 96. He could blow hitters away in his early days, but it was his eventual mastery of the art of pitching that turned him into a Cy Young winner. He fooled opponents more with his craftsmanship than with his speed. No doubt some hitters will go to their graves wondering how to hit a Felix Hernandez changeup.
He’s still wearing No. 34 on the back of his uniform, with the baggy pants worn down to the bottom of his cleats, and his delivery has the same familiar little twist. We all know what happened in recent years, as the fastball diminished and the ERAs rose. For a split second, it makes you wish Felix could throw 96 again.
Hernandez is fighting for a spot on Atlanta’s starting staff. With Cole Hamels set to open the season on the injured list, the Braves have four pitchers competing for two spots in the rotation behind Mike Soroka, Mike Foltynewicz and Max Fried: Sean Newcomb, Touki Toussaint, Kyle Wright and Hernandez. Given Hernandez’s 6.40 ERA last season with the Mariners, he has to be viewed as a long shot, but maybe the Braves decide that Toussaint and Wright need a little more seasoning in Triple-A, or maybe Newcomb ends up back in the bullpen, where he made 51 of his 55 appearances last season.
“It’s no risk for us to see if he has anything left,” Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos told me a couple of days ago. Hernandez is on a $1 million, non-guaranteed contract, so he has to earn his way onto the roster. Anthopoulos cited a few reasons the Braves gave him a chance: the move to the National League, catchers with better framing skills (Tyler Flowers ranked second in the majors, according to the metrics at Baseball Savant) and a better defensive team behind him. Indeed, last season, the Braves ranked 10th in the majors, with plus-41 defensive runs saved, and the Mariners ranked 29th, with minus-88.
One other thing, Anthopoulos noted: “You can’t dismiss the career numbers.”
Still, things did not end well in Seattle. Hernandez won just once in 15 starts in 2019 (he missed time because of a strained lat), and he went 1-16 in his final 17 decisions with the Mariners, dating to 2018. Batters hit .291 and slugged .551 off him last season. His average exit velocity allowed ranked in the first percentile.
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Against the Red Sox, Hernandez’s final line looked fine: five innings, six hits, one run, two walks, six strikeouts. He cruised through the first two innings on an efficient 16 pitches, with the Red Sox swinging early in the count. He struggled only in the fourth inning, walking Jonathan Lucroy on four pitches and giving up back-to-back line-drive singles before escaping the jam with a double play and strikeout.
After the game, Hernandez said he was very happy with his outing. “I think my next start will be six innings. We go from there,” he said. He was even able to joke about the new guidelines sent out Monday that said players should conduct interviews 6 feet away from reporters. “New rules! New rules!” he laughed as he sat down at a makeshift setup outside the Braves clubhouse. He didn’t seem too worried about the coronavirus as he sat down at the table — or about what will happen at the end of camp and whether he still has life in a big league rotation.
“I wouldn’t be surprised. I have to keep doing my job,” he said. “It’s not my decision.”
The Red Sox didn’t exactly send their top lineup to North Port: There was no J.D. Martinez, no Rafael Devers, no Xander Bogaerts. It’s impossible to know what this performance means for Hernandez, other than that he allowed just one run, continuing a spring in which he has thrown pretty well. In four spring outings, he has allowed three runs in 13⅔ innings with 14 strikeouts, 5 walks and 13 hits allowed.
Sometimes spring training stats mean nothing. Sometimes they mean everything. Hernandez has given himself a chance to make the team.
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There was one signature Felix moment that looked like it was from a decade ago, when he struck out Andrew Benintendi in the fifth. After a first-pitch ball, Hernandez threw a fastball past Benintendi, got him to swing and miss at a changeup low and away, and then threw another fastball inside that Benintendi swung through.
Manager Brian Snitker said he thought Hernandez threw well, mentioning some excellent changeups and showing “pitchability.” All four of Hernandez’s starts have come at home against traveling lineups, and Snitker pointed out that his next two starts will be on the road, where he will face lineups with more regulars.
“That will be a good test for him,” Snitker said. “He needs to keep going and we evaluate the whole thing. We have seven starters we’re stretching, and all seven are doing pretty good.”
Hernandez has three starts remaining before the Braves makes a decision. He turns 34 in April and has 2,729 innings logged in that right arm — all, of course, in the regular season. Does he see his baseball mortality? Maybe he does, though he’ll keep those thoughts to himself.
For now, just keep pitching, one game at a time, until it’s the final game.