PEORIA, Ariz. — If all goes as Felix Hernandez hopes, he won’t be pitching for the Mariners again for the next two weeks.
With the World Baseball Classic looming, Hernandez hopes that he will help lead Venezuela to the title.
“We are real excited,” Hernandez said. “I think we got a pretty good team.”
Indeed, he should have some run support with Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers, Salvador Perez of the Royals, Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies, Odubel Herrera of the Phillies and his nemesis Jose Altuve of the Astros.
While a WBC title would give him bragging rights over teammates Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz, who played on the last WBC championship team for the Dominican Republic in 2013, it would also mean something for his home country that has been racked by a failing economy, rampant poverty and violent protests.
“It’s really important to give Venezuela a victory after everything that is happening there and the situation there being so bad,” he said. “A win for Venezuela would be meaningful.”
Hernandez pitched for Venezuela in 2009, but did not participate in 2013 as he and the Mariners were finalizing a massive contract extension.
The quest for the WBC title starts on Thursday in Jalisco, Mexico, with Pool D play. Hernandez will start Venezuela’s opener, facing a loaded Puerto Rico team that features hard-hitting infielders Carlos Correa of the Astros, Francisco Lindor of the Indians and Javier Baez of the Cubs.
How long Hernandez remains away from the Mariners is determinant on Venezuela’s success. If his team continues to advance, Hernandez could make two or three starts in the WBC. The championship pool runs from March 20-22.
“It’s just a short tournament,” he said.
The Mariners and their fans might not feel that way.
Obviously, the organization has some level of anxiety with having any player participate in the WBC. An injury to a key player before the season starts would be less than ideal. But Hernandez is critical to Seattle’s success this season. With a rotation that has other lingering questions, they need Hernandez to have a bounce back season.
A year ago, he missed six weeks with a calf injury and even when healthy dealt with serious command issues with his fastball and an inability to consistently put away hitters. He posted an 11-8 record with a 3.82 ERA in 25 starts and set a career high in walk percentage (9.9).
Manager Scott Servais, general manager Jerry Dipoto and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre all asked him to refocus his offseason workouts on building strength in his legs and core while also refining some mechanical changes and coming more prepared to spring training. They embraced his desire to play in the WBC hoping it would provide additional motivation for him to make those changes on top of last season’s disappointing results.
“With Felix and where he’s at right now, he’s in a little bit different spot than he has ever been before,” Servais said. “He’s been challenged and he wants to bounce back and have a big year.”
His last start before his WBC hiatus on Sunday showed hints of the issues of last season but also some of the progress made from the offseason.
Hernandez gave up two runs in the first inning to the Oakland A’s because of wandering fastball command. Two fastballs that leaked back over the middle of the plate led to back-to-back run-scoring hits from Ryon Healy and Mark Canha.
“The first inning was a little rough,” he said. “After that, I started locating a little better.”
The command that is so necessary for Hernandez to have success — with his velocity down a few ticks in recent years — started to come around in the second inning. His final inning of work — the third — was his best. He needed just nine pitches to get through the inning, striking out Adam Rosales and Stephen Vogt.
His fastball velocity sat at 91-92, which is a good sign for this early in the spring.
“It feels good,” he said of finishing strong. “I was more calm and more confident and I was throwing more strikes.”