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King Felix's strong Minors game bodes well

Mariners ace takes big step toward Opening Day start with sharp outing
MLB.com @gregjohnsmlb

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Felix Hernandez answered enough questions about his health and readiness Monday in a strong three-inning Minor League outing that the longtime Mariners ace appears to have put himself back in position to make his 10th straight Opening Day start for Seattle on March 29.

Manager Scott Servais will need to see how Hernandez fares against the Cubs this Saturday in a final Cactus League outing before making a decision between him and lefty James Paxton, but Hernandez's chances clearly increased tremendously after a sharp outing against the Padres' Triple-A club on a back field at the Peoria Sports Complex.

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Felix Hernandez answered enough questions about his health and readiness Monday in a strong three-inning Minor League outing that the longtime Mariners ace appears to have put himself back in position to make his 10th straight Opening Day start for Seattle on March 29.

Manager Scott Servais will need to see how Hernandez fares against the Cubs this Saturday in a final Cactus League outing before making a decision between him and lefty James Paxton, but Hernandez's chances clearly increased tremendously after a sharp outing against the Padres' Triple-A club on a back field at the Peoria Sports Complex.

Spring Training information

"I thought Felix threw the ball great," Servais said. "I was really happy with what I saw. I thought the life on his pitches, the execution of his pitches, the changeup was good, he worked on some other things with his delivery that I thought looked excellent. So it was about as good as you could imagine it being with his first time out there in quite awhile."

After replying to reporters' questions about his first game since taking a line drive off his elbow in his Cactus League debut Feb. 26, a smiling Hernandez turned to walk away and let out a happy "I'm back!"

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

It'll take one more outing before that analysis can be confirmed. A 38-pitch start against a Minor League club while allowing three hits and a run with five strikeouts isn't proof positive, but it was definitely a big step forward.

Servais indicated if Hernandez struggles to get his pitch count up in his next start, the thinking will be readjusted. But all signs point to Hernandez being ready for the opener if that outing goes well.

"It is ramping it up rather quickly," Servais said. "If he is able to make the Opening Day start, we're not looking at him to go out and throw 100 pitches. If we can get 75-80 pitches out of him and five really good innings and turn it over to the bullpen, we'll see.

"We don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves. But that's kind of the plan looking into this thing because he's not going to be ready to go out and throw 100 pitches. We have to be smart. But he looks very healthy to me."

Mike Zunino, who caught Hernandez's outing, was in full agreement.

"He looked great," said Zunino. "As under control, as balanced and as effortless as I've seen him in quite some time. He knows it, too. He knows when he can reach back and get more, but I think he's truly pitching. He's working the ball back and forth, mixing all four of his pitches. I think if he just carries into the season, he'll have a great year."

Hernandez gave up a triple and RBI single in the third inning of his outing, but responded by striking out the final three batters. The only moment that bothered him was a sharp grounder up the middle in the second.

"That was good," Hernandez said. "I was finally on the mound. I was a little scared by the comebacker, but everything else was fine. That's who I am. I'm going to go out there and compete. But it felt really good. Everything was in place. Good curveball, good changeup, command. It was everything in control."

Ultimately, it will be Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto making the decision if Hernandez extends the Major Leagues' longest active Opening Day streak to 10 in a row, but those decision makers were all smiles on this day.

"That looked great," Dipoto said. "His stuff was crisp, efficient and he wanted to keep going. It couldn't have gone better."

Paxton, who threw six innings against the Padres' Double-A club on an adjacent field, was among those rooting on his veteran teammate.

"That's good news for us," Paxton said. "I heard that Felix had a great day today and that's exactly what we need. We need that guy big time on this team and hopefully he'll be ready to go to start the season. We'll see."

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.

Seattle Mariners, Felix Hernandez