- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Felix Hernandez lacks national exposure and run support in Seattle, but he basks in the communal atmosphere the city provides. When he stares in for the sign at Safeco Field, he can feel the warmth envelop him regardless of the circumstances. Rain or shine, Rangers or Athletics, closed roof or open air, it's a constant companion.
He made a long-term commitment to stay with the organization rather than explore other opportunities because the Mariners paid him $175 million over seven years through the 2019 season. But he's also determined to punctuate his time in Seattle with an exclamation point rather than a question mark.
Time has sneaked up on Hernandez with the subtlety of a Pacific Northwest drizzle. He is 28 years old now, in his 10th season, with a Cy Young Award and four All-Star Game appearances to his credit. And he's off to yet another strong start, with a 3-1 record, a 2.53 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.3. Any discussion about baseball aces needs to include his name alongside Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright and a select few other marquee starters.
Too bad that's not the only list his name adorns.
When Hernandez takes the mound Wednesday against Oakland, it will be his 277th big league start without a postseason appearance. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Aaron Harang, with 326 starts, is the only active pitcher with more regular-season starts and no postseason outings. Next in line come Paul Maholm (247 career starts) and Kansas City teammates Bruce Chen and Jeremy Guthrie (222 each).
Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins holds the record for pitchers with 594 starts, so Hernandez has a ways to go to make history. Yet the question is still worth posing: Is this Hernandez's ultimate destiny, to be a civic treasure without a chance on the national stage?
Hernandez approaches the question with the same resolve he uses when it's the seventh inning, he's passed the 100-pitch mark and he needs to summon an extra 2-3 mph to make a hitter chase. The thought of six more years of futility doesn't even cross his mind.
"We believe in this team," he said. "We believe in our talent. We're gonna get there. I have no doubts at all."
If and when Hernandez breaks through, many others will rejoice on his behalf. Upon arrival at spring training, new manager Lloyd McClendon brought Hernandez into his office and had a sit-down with his star right-hander. A month into the season, the Mariners are 16-15 and looking rather pesky.
"He can see the tide starting to turn a little bit," McClendon said. "He can see this team getting better. I told him in the spring, 'Remember where you came from and how tough it was? When we get there -- and we will get there -- I want you to enjoy this journey and really celebrate.' His time is coming."
It can't come soon enough for the Mariners, who haven't been relevant nationally since Ichiro Suzuki captured the American League MVP and Rookie of the Year awards while Lou Piniella was guiding the team to 116 wins in 2001. It was so long ago that "Who Let the Dogs Out?" was still the team theme song.
He's seen the changes
The Mariners have gone through various incarnations since then, while the Angels, Rangers and Athletics have taken turns leading the pack in the AL West. During his tenure in Seattle, Hernandez has played for seven managers and thrown to an assortment of catchers such as Kenji Johjima and Miguel Olivo. He watched Jeff Clement and Wladimir Balentien come and go, Adam Jones get traded to Baltimore, Chone Figgins fail to live up to a big contract and Ken Griffey Jr. hop in his car and take a long cross-country drive home without saying goodbye after returning for a second tour of duty with the Mariners.
The Mariners haven't finished above .500 since 2009, but they made a statement during the offseason when they signed Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million deal. It was a major leap of faith by ownership and general manager Jack Zduriencik, given that several young hitters who are supposed to complement Cano have been a mixed bag of promise and underachievement.
While Kyle Seager has a chance to be a top-10 third baseman, Brad Miller is a scout's favorite and catcher Mike Zunino has shown power and the willingness to work on his rough edges behind the plate, the leash is shorter for Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders, players who have given the Mariners tantalizing glimpses only to fail to put it together for extended periods. Jesus Montero, acquired from the Yankees in the Michael Pineda trade, needs to show a lot in a hurry if he wants to avoid being labeled a bust.
"Someone needs to step forward and be the guy they need him to be," said an AL personnel man. "At this point, I think the most you can hope for from some of those guys is for them to be average regulars."
Nevertheless, it's hard to rule out Seattle making a postseason run in the not-too-distant future. For starters, the expanded postseason format leads to much greater opportunity than in Ernie Banks' and Fergie Jenkins' heyday with the Cubs. Since Hernandez's rookie year in 2005, 26 of the 30 big league teams have been to the playoffs at least once. The only exceptions: Seattle, Miami, Toronto and Kansas City.
The Mariners also have a solid pitching foundation in place, with a rotation of Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and youngsters Taijuan Walker, Roenis Elias and James Paxton. In some ways the Mariners are an AL parallel to the Mets, who have reason for hope if Matt Harvey returns from his Tommy John surgery and heads a rotation that includes Zack Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard, Jon Niese and Dillon Gee. The Mets have a position player pillar in David Wright, their Robinson Cano, but they have had difficulty developing a core of solid regulars to surround him.
ESPN's Keith Law ranks Seattle's farm system No. 21 in the majors and Baseball America has the M's at No. 25, so there's not much impact talent on the horizon. Zduriencik is routinely mentioned in "general managers on the hot seat" speculation, and the pressure was ratcheted up considerably when the Mariners shelled out all that money for Cano.
"I don't think they're a playoff team now, and I don't think they're close," said a National League executive. "They just don't have a lot of impact guys, and that Cano contract is going to eat into what you can spend. It's a tough road. I think they can win. I just don't think it'll be in the next year or two."
An extra gear
After all these years, Hernandez still elicits a special buzz every fifth day. Zunino sensed it when he strapped on his shin guards and caught King Felix for the first time on June 26, 2013. It was just another day at the office for Hernandez, who struck out 11 batters in a loss to Pittsburgh.
"His stuff is amazing, and he has that instinct where he wants to put hitters away," Zunino said. "There's definitely a different level for him. He always has that extra gear to get out of trouble or make that big pitch."
Hernandez is a different pitcher than when he broke in at age 19. His fastball velocity has declined from 96 mph to 92 mph, and he is more smitten each year with his changeup, a pitch that he developed in 2009. He throws it anywhere from 89-91 mph, so it's almost indistinguishable from his fastball until it's dive-bombing through the zone.
Like Verlander, King Felix has learned from experience that radar gun-induced vanity and winning can conflict at times.
"I'm more mature and a little bit more smart," he said, "and I know what I have to do. I know the hitters, and I don't have to throw that hard to get people out."
Hernandez's competitiveness will never wane. He lobbies so incessantly and vocally to stay in games that McClendon has learned that the path of least resistance is to signal for the reliever on his way out of the dugout. Nothing short-circuits an argument like rendering the debate moot.
That internal motor keeps churning beyond the playing field. The Mariners have a training room competition called the "tape toss," in which they take the ends of tape rolls used to wrap wrists and ankles and chuck them into a recycling bin from a distance. No one keeps a definitive log, but reliever Charlie Furbush said it's uncanny how often Hernandez wins.
When Hernandez strolls into the clubhouse with his diamond earrings and tattoos, talking good-natured smack, it's clear that he's no diva superstar.
"He's a good teammate, and that's the ultimate compliment you can give any baseball player," McClendon said.
In 2005, when Hernandez was still a phenom, Jamie Moyer and Eddie Guardado helped teach him how to act like a big leaguer. Now he's determined to pass along his accumulated wisdom to Walker, Elias and Seattle's other young pitchers.
A youthful veteran
Furbush, born on April 11, 1986, is three days younger than Hernandez, but he still regards Seattle's ace as an elder and a role model.
"We always joke around, and I'm like, 'Man, imagine being 19 and being in the big leagues,'" Furbush said. "I don't know if my mind was even ready for that. He is probably the most consistent guy I've ever played with. He comes in every day with a big smile on his face, and he's willing to help anybody. He does it on the field and off the field."
Community activity is an inevitable offshoot of a high profile. Hernandez and his wife, Sandra, are involved with charities including the Humane Society and the Seattle Children's Hospital, and the Mariners routinely catch wind of a visit he's made or a sick kid whose day he has brightened unbeknownst to the team. The Mariners enjoyed a rare home off-day on April 10 this season, yet Hernandez agreed to show up and film an anti-bullying public service announcement at Safeco Field. When he and rapper Macklemore popped out of the dugouts, the kids went wild.
As hokey as it sounds, some things transcend money and fame. Hernandez's bond with the locals is strengthened whenever he takes the mound and the fans in the "King's Court" hang on every pitch. This year, the Mariners took the concept a step further and turned Safeco Field into the "Supreme Court" for his first home start against Oakland. The first 25,000 fans received a T-shirt and a "K" card to wave in response to every strikeout.
Will Seattle fans cheer Hernandez in a postseason game one day, or is he destined to keep plugging away with no October stage? Jenkins, Jim Bunning and Ted Lyons all reached the Hall of Fame without a postseason appearance. But Roy Halladay made his playoff debut at age 33, so there's still reason to believe.
In this, his 10th season with the Mariners, Hernandez knows the only thing he can do to change his place in history is go out every fifth day and deal. He's enjoying the journey and trusting that his time will come.
Felix Hernandez has been dominant since day one of his career. But as great as he's been, is he destined to never pitch in the playoffs?