May 15, 2006
May 15, 2006

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May 15, 2006

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Ace in aHole
After a brilliant rookie year at 19, would-be star Felix Hernandez hasstruggled--just when the Mariners need him most

This is an article from the May 15, 2006 issue Original Layout

One day aftergetting knocked around by the White Sox for four runs in four innings, Marinersrighty Felix Hernandez, oblivious to his surroundings, rested in front of hisSafeco Field locker, music blaring from his headphones. A few feet from him,atop a table, the headline from a Seattle newspaper spelled out the questionconfounding many in the Emerald City: WHAT'S UP WITH FELIX?

In that outinglast Thursday in Chicago, Hernandez failed to last past the fifth inning forthe 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 asbaseball's youngest pitcher in two decades he had a 2.67 ERA and fanned 77batters in 84 1/3 innings. With his latest loss his record fell to 1-4 and hisERA rose to 5.40--a disappointing start for the 20-year-old phenom known asKing Felix and tagged as the savior of a franchise that has lost 90 games intwo straight seasons.

"I think he'sjust overthrowing right now," says Tigers catcher Vance Wilson, whose clubbeat Hernandez on April 23. Adds an AL executive, "He doesn't have quitethe same aura out there as he did last year. It's possible that hitters haveadjusted, but I think he's just not as comfortable. The expectations are sounbelievably high."

The supremelyconfident native of Valencia, Venezuela--in the minors he had the words FELIXEL CARTELUA embroidered on his glove (loose translation: Felix theBadass)--dismisses the idea that his press clippings have him pressing. "Ifeel 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."

Hernandez'sstrikeout rate (at week's end he was averaging 9.95 per nine innings, up from8.22 last year) and velocity (he's routinely reaching 97 mph, as he did in2005) make his struggles that much more perplexing. Earlier this seasonSeattle's coaches believed he might be tipping his pitches, but afterscrutinizing video, they've dismissed that theory. And the club has no concernsabout Hernandez's working with Japanese rookie catcher Kenji Johjima. SaysHernandez of Johjima, who also speaks adequate English, "He's my brother.We joke a lot. We get along great. I trust him completely."

The Marinersbelieve that Hernandez's problems are predominantly mechanical, caused by theshin splints that sidelined him for two weeks in late March and early April,disrupting his preparation for the season and, more significantly, affectinghis delivery. "He got into some bad habits because of the injury," sayspitching coach Rafael Chaves. "He was trying to generate all his power fromhis upper body, instead of his legs. He's closer to getting back to where heshould be."

Seattle rejectsthe suggestion that Hernandez would be better off working out the kinks atTriple A Tacoma, where he has thrown only 88 career innings. "He's not asconsistent as last year," says manager Mike Hargrove, "but he'll getthere."

The youngestpitcher in baseball may have time on his side, but the clock is ticking for therest of the Mariners, who at 13--20 through Sunday were already 4 1/2 games outof first. Their bullpen, ranked 12th in the league (5.32 ERA), was inshambles--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, ranked11th in runs, was as punchless as the face of the franchise, Ichiro Suzuki. Acareer .330 hitter, Ichiro was batting just .270 and was on pace to fall wellshort 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 thesame number of home dates, 19, last season), the heat was rising on Hargroveand general manager Bill Bavasi.

"It's been atough start, but we also had a brutal schedule," says leftfielder RaulIbañez, referring to the fact that 21 of Seattle's first 30 games were againstteams that had winning records in '05. "We know we can turn thisaround." Not unless their 20-year-old ace stops acting his age.

Young Infielders Lead a Revival

Charlie Manuel hadseen enough. On May 1 the manager watched his Phillies slumber through thefirst three innings of a game at Florida, just after the club had lost two ofthree to the woebegone Pirates to fall to 10--14. In the visitors' dugout atDolphin Stadium, the slow-talking, usually mellow Manuel lit into his playersfor their lack of effort, yelling, "If you're not going to play the gameright, go home!"

The Philliesroared back that night, erasing a four-run, seventh-inning deficit to win 8--5.They added comeback victories the next four days, and by Sunday they had woneight in a row, their longest streak since 1991. Philadelphia--called "thebest offensive team we've seen this year" by Rockies G.M. Dan O'Dowd--rodeits two rising stars, 26-year-old first baseman Ryan Howard and 27-year-oldsecond baseman Chase Utley, who combined for six home runs and 18 RBIs duringthe streak.

Named NL Rookie ofthe Year last season after hitting 22 homers in 88 games, Howard has picked upwhere he left off (.306, eight homers, 21 RBIs at week's end). Utley, who hit.291 with 28 homers and 105 RBIs in '05, has quietly established himself as thebest second baseman in the game (.325, seven homers, .581 slugging percentage).A sweet-swinging lefthanded hitter who grew up idolizing Jim Thome--he modeledhis stroke after the former Phillies first baseman--Utley lost weight duringthe course of last season, batting .256 over the final two months as thePhillies fell short of the playoffs. After taking just one month off lastwinter, he began working with a trainer to improve his durability.

"I feelstronger," says the 6'1" Utley, who bulked up 15 pounds to 197 by thetime he arrived at camp, "and hopefully I'll feel this way the wholeseason."

Three other rookie pitching phenoms from last season have struggled in theirsecond year in the Show (stats through Sunday).

MATT CAIN, 21,Giants (1-4, 6.27 ERA)
Dominant in seven starts after a late August call-up (2.33 ERA, 30 strikeouts),the righthander was in danger of losing his spot in the rotation after allowingfour homers in a four-inning outing at Philadelphia last Friday.

ZACH DUKE (above),23, Pirates (2-3, 4.00)
Pitching coach Jim Colborn overhauled the lefthander's delivery despite his8-2, 1.81 performance after a July promotion. So far the results have beeninconsistent: five quality starts, two disasters.

HUSTON STREET, 22,A's (1-1, 5.19, four saves)
The AL Rookie of the Year (23 saves) returned to action last week after missing11 games with a strained right pectoral muscle and having struggled badly withhis command early in the season. Manager Ken Macha plans to ease therighthanded flamethrower back into the closer's role.

PHOTOAL TIELEMANS (HERNANDEZ) UPS ANDDOWNS - Hernandez's strikeout rate has risen, but so has his ERA.PHOTOKEITH SRAKOCIC/AP (DUKE)