Hernandez reaffirms why he's 'King'
Righty's hot start could foreshadow big things for the M's
SEATTLE -- Robinson Cano got a bonus with that 10-year, $240 million contract he signed with the Seattle Mariners.
Now, he gets to play behind right-hander Felix Hernandez.
He doesn't have to hit against him anymore.
"He's out of this world," Cano said. "If he's not the best, he's one of them. He's the guy you want out there to set a tone in a big series."
Mission accomplished on Friday night.
For seven innings, Hernandez simply overmatched the two-time defending AL West champion Oakland A's, setting the tone for what became a 6-4 Mariners victory at Safeco Field.
Hernandez is off to a 3-0 start -- the first time in his career he has won each of his first three starts. And the Mariners made a statement after they had lost two of three in Oakland last weekend, slipping back ahead of the A's into first-place in the AL West by a half game.
Yes, it is only April.
But for the Mariners every game is a big game, no matter when or where. They want the credibility as a team that Hernandez has earned as an individual. Four consecutive fourth-place finishes are enough. Twelve years without a postseason appearance is too many.
That's why the Mariners shook up the baseball world last off-season, luring Cano away from the New York Yankees with a 10-year, $240 million free-agent contract. They want him to provide that veteran stability to a youthful lineup that Hernandez brings to the rotation.
"The same feeling the Tigers get when [Justin] Verlander and [Max] Scherzer pitch," Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said of the anticipation in Seattle when Hernandez goes to the mound.
What's that feeling?
"Our guys feel good when he is out there, and they should," said Cano. "I feel good when he's out there. You don't like facing him. You like having him out there for you."
Hernandez is reinforcing that confidence his teammates have in the early days of this season. With projected starters Taijuan Walker and Hisashi Iwakuma on the disabled list to open the season, and James Paxton joining them on Wednesday, he's been the necessary ballast for the Mariners' ship.
He has earned three of the Mariners' six victories in nine games. He has been on the mound for both of the Mariners wins in the four games against Oakland. He worked 8 1/3 innings, allowing one run, in a 3-1 victory at Oakland on April 4. Friday, he worked seven shutout innings, striking out 11, and then departed with no outs and runners on first and third in the eighth inning.
"He's fun to watch," said Mariners left fielder Dustin Ackley.
It's fun for the Mariners' players, and it's fun for the Mariners' fans, whose fascination with Hernandez seems to grow with each start. It was late May three years ago that the Mariners marketing program, looking to stir up interest in a team that was struggling, created The King's Court. Located down the left field line at Safeco Field, tickets are available to sit in the section at a reduce price. Fans received King's Court t-shirts along with cards to hold endorsing Hernandez.
When Felix made his 2014 home debut on Friday night, King's Court had become the Supreme Court, the Felix-phenomena having spread throughout Safeco. The bulk of the paid attendance of 38,968 wore the yellow t-shirts inscribed:
Hernandez didn't disappoint.
He rarely does. With his win on Friday night, he's now 17-7 lifetime against the A's, his most wins against any team. He's also now 22-11 in games played in March or April.
He's become a drawing card. A year ago, the Mariners attendance for his 15 starts at Safeco Field averaged 25,598, a 5,408 edge over the 66 other home games.
This season has only just begun. Friday was only the Mariners third home game of 2014. And while Friday's crowd was no match for the 45,661 who paid to get into Tuesday's home opener against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, it was more than double the 16,437 tickets sold for the second home game on Wednesday.
"He's a No. 1 here or any place," said Cano. "He is out of this world. He's the guy you want out there for the first game in a big series, like [Friday]."
He didn't disappoint.
While McClendon didn't give him a chance to work out of that first-and-third, nobody-out situation in the eighth, Hernandez seemed almost effortless in getting out of the two threats the A's had in the first seven innings.
Jed Lowrie and Josh Donaldson had back-to-back one-out singles in the fourth, but Hernandez struck out Brandon Moss and Yoenis Cespedes swinging.
After Alberto Callaspo's leadoff double in the fifth, Hernandez got Derek Norris to ground to third, struck out Daric Barton swinging, and -- following Cano's boot of an Eric Sogard ground ball -- Hernandez got Sam Fuld to take a third strike.
"He's fun to play behind," said Cano. "A lot more fun than he is to hit against."
Hernandez reaffirmed that against the A's on Friday.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.