- Félix Hernández is no longer the flamethrower he used to be, but he looked like an ace in a dominant Opening Day performance.
The nostalgia draw for the Mariners’ season opener on Thursday night was supposed to be the return of Ichiro Suzuki, finally back in the Pacific Northwest after six years of peripatetic existence. And there was, as expected, plenty of Ichiro celebration: big cheers during his lineup introduction, a standing ovation during his first at-bat, the wrinkle-inducing realization that at least half the Mariners’ roster was in daycare when he made his MLB debut in 2001. But it wasn’t just Ichiro who took both Seattle and baseball fans back a decade on Opening Day. It was also the man on the mound, Félix Hernández, whose first start was both a flash of the pitcher he once was and a good sign for a Mariners team that needs him to be something closer to his old self if it wants to contend.
Over 5 1/3 innings across his 10th straight Opening Day start, the veteran Venezuelan righty blanked the Indians, allowing only a pair of hits and two walks and striking out four in an eventual 2–1 Seattle win. Hernández didn’t have much trouble with Cleveland’s vaunted lineup, allowing a runner to second base just once and never getting into jams, and when he departed with a man on and one out in the sixth, that threat was quickly erased by a José Ramírez double play. It was as clean a start as you could hope for, especially given that Hernández took a line drive off his right arm in spring training.
It was also a notable departure from the starts that Hernández slogged through all last year. Bursitis in his shoulder limited him to 86 2/3 innings—his fewest since his rookie season in 2005 and second straight under 200—and ineffectiveness left him with a bloated 4.36 ERA and 17 home runs surrendered, or nearly two per nine. He failed to get to or through the sixth in seven of his 16 starts, and only twice did he go seven or more. The days of Hernández vacuuming up innings and outs seemed to be over.
Thursday’s start wasn’t a full return, then, to true King Felix status: his start ended in the sixth inning and his fastball averaged a tick over 90 MPH. But that didn’t matter against the Indians, as Hernández leaned on his offspeed and breaking pitches, particularly his changeup—a repertoire change that started when his velocity first began to fade five years ago, and has now become his go-to strategy. He also used his curveball heavily, throwing 23 of them among his 83 pitches. Between those two pitches and his sinker, he was able to keep the Indians out of the air, inducing six groundouts on the night, including a double play.
There will be days when that formula doesn’t work. Teams will be able to expose his waning velocity, golf some hanging changeups or curves and overpower the aging righty. This same piece, meanwhile, could’ve come out this time last year after he held the Astros to two runs in five innings to begin the season, and after which everything quickly collapsed.
But it’s so vitally important to the Mariners’ hopes that Hernández build on this debut, thin as their rotation is. James Paxton is the team’s true ace, but he struggles to stay healthy, and no one should count on anything but replacement-level results from Mike Leake, Marco Gonzales, and whoever ends up being the fifth starter from the collection of Erasmo Ramirez, Wade LeBlanc, or Ariel Miranda. Paxton is the only one of those arms with real upside, and with Seattle opting not to sign starters despite deep discounts available on the free-agent market, contention rests on those pitchers already in place, especially Hernández.
But even beyond what Hernández means to the 2018 Mariners, let’s celebrate a nice start from one of the game’s transcendent talents. Hernández has been around seemingly forever—his first Opening Day start came in 2007—and has thrown over 2,500 innings in his career. Somehow, he’s still a week shy of his 32nd birthday. For years, he and Ichiro were just about the only bankable things about a franchise perpetually stuck in neutral, and after charting his growth from super prospect to Cy Young contender, his decay has been hard to watch. But for one day, he held back the tide and looked like the Felix of days gone by, and gave hope that it doesn’t all have to end just a couple of years past 30.
Maybe this strong opener leads to a season of vintage King Felix results; maybe Opening Day was just a mirage. Time always wins, and the further Hernández goes in his career, the harder it will be for him to pull out results like this on a regular basis. But no matter where this goes, we got at least one more game of Hernández doing what he does best—keeping hitters off balance and dazzling on Opening Day. He made you feel nostalgic, and that makes perfect sense: Nostalgia is, after all, a longing for the past tinged with the sadness of knowing that it may never be again. Mariners fans may have expected that with Ichiro, but they got it from their king, too.