Ace in a
After a brilliant rookie year at 19, would-be star Felix Hernandez has
struggled--just when the Mariners need him most
One day after
getting knocked around by the White Sox for four runs in four innings, Mariners
righty Felix Hernandez, oblivious to his surroundings, rested in front of his
Safeco Field locker, music blaring from his headphones. A few feet from him,
atop a table, the headline from a Seattle newspaper spelled out the question
confounding many in the Emerald City: WHAT'S UP WITH FELIX?
In that outing
last Thursday in Chicago, Hernandez failed to last past the fifth inning for
the fifth time in six starts and served up his sixth home run of the year.
That's one more than he surrendered in 12 starts last season, when as
baseball's youngest pitcher in two decades he had a 2.67 ERA and fanned 77
batters in 84 1/3 innings. With his latest loss his record fell to 1-4 and his
ERA rose to 5.40--a disappointing start for the 20-year-old phenom known as
King Felix and tagged as the savior of a franchise that has lost 90 games in
two straight seasons.
"I think he's
just overthrowing right now," says Tigers catcher Vance Wilson, whose club
beat Hernandez on April 23. Adds an AL executive, "He doesn't have quite
the same aura out there as he did last year. It's possible that hitters have
adjusted, but I think he's just not as comfortable. The expectations are so
confident native of Valencia, Venezuela--in the minors he had the words FELIX
EL CARTELUA�embroidered on his glove (loose translation: Felix the
Badass)--dismisses the idea that his press clippings have him pressing. "I
feel great," he says, in English that's much improved from last season.
"I feel more comfortable [than last year], knowing the hitters better.
Right now I'm making bad pitches at the bad time. One or two pitches different,
[and] it's a different game."
strikeout rate (at week's end he was averaging 9.95 per nine innings, up from
8.22 last year) and velocity (he's routinely reaching 97 mph, as he did in
2005) make his struggles that much more perplexing. Earlier this season
Seattle's coaches believed he might be tipping his pitches, but after
scrutinizing video, they've dismissed that theory. And the club has no concerns
about Hernandez's working with Japanese rookie catcher Kenji Johjima. Says
Hernandez of Johjima, who also speaks adequate English, "He's my brother.
We joke a lot. We get along great. I trust him completely."
believe that Hernandez's problems are predominantly mechanical, caused by the
shin splints that sidelined him for two weeks in late March and early April,
disrupting his preparation for the season and, more significantly, affecting
his delivery. "He got into some bad habits because of the injury," says
pitching coach Rafael Chaves. "He was trying to generate all his power from
his upper body, instead of his legs. He's closer to getting back to where he
the suggestion that Hernandez would be better off working out the kinks at
Triple A Tacoma, where he has thrown only 88 career innings. "He's not as
consistent as last year," says manager Mike Hargrove, "but he'll get
pitcher in baseball may have time on his side, but the clock is ticking for the
rest of the Mariners, who at 13--20 through Sunday were already 4 1/2 games out
of first. Their bullpen, ranked 12th in the league (5.32 ERA), was in
shambles--after blowing three saves in the first five weeks, Eddie Guardado
(0--2, 7.59 ERA) was replaced by a closer-by-committee. The offense, ranked
11th in runs, was as punchless as the face of the franchise, Ichiro Suzuki. A
career .330 hitter, Ichiro was batting just .270 and was on pace to fall well
short of 200 hits for the first time in his six big league seasons. Meanwhile,
as attendance continued to slide in Seattle (down 6,686 per game through the
same number of home dates, 19, last season), the heat was rising on Hargrove
and general manager Bill Bavasi.
"It's been a
tough start, but we also had a brutal schedule," says leftfielder Raul
Iba�ez, referring to the fact that 21 of Seattle's first 30 games were against
teams that had winning records in '05. "We know we can turn this
around." Not unless their 20-year-old ace stops acting his age.