PEORIA, Ariz. -- When Felix Hernandez takes the mound Monday in Houston, the Mariners will have had the same Opening Day starter for nine straight years, the longest active streak in the Majors. But will it be the same Hernandez or a revised version of the King looking to regain
PEORIA, Ariz. -- When Felix Hernandez takes the mound Monday in Houston, the Mariners will have had the same Opening Day starter for nine straight years, the longest active streak in the Majors. But will it be the same Hernandez or a revised version of the King looking to regain his place among baseball's elite?
The Mariners believe Hernandez, who'll turn 31 on April 8, needs to take a different approach as his age and innings grow and his fastball slows. He was a good Major League starter last year (11-8 with a 3.82 ERA), but not a great one.
Now comes a new season, and with it a motivated Hernandez, who seems to have accepted that he'll need to attack hitters differently. Hernandez knows he'll need to pitch more to contact and not constantly go for a strikeout, an approach that raises his pitch count and lowers his chances of pitching deep into games.
Manager Scott Servais said Hernandez needs to resist the allure of trying to live up to the "K, K, K" chant from his King's Court faithful at Safeco Field every time he gets two strikes on a hitter.
"You get ahead in the count, throw a fastball low and away and take a fly ball to right field. That works, too," Servais said. "I love the King's Court. I get all that. But the minute those people get on their feet and start screaming for a strikeout -- he's human. I would probably do the same thing. Try to give them what they want.
"But he's understanding that and hopefully coming to a point in his career that, 'You know what? I'll just get this guy out. It might get me deeper into the game and I might win a few more games because now I'm pitching in the seventh and eighth vs. out of there in the sixth.' It's a big deal for us."
Hernandez was very effective this spring, turning in an excellent outing against Team USA for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic and following that up with two strong starts to close out Cactus League play.
He acknowledged that using different pitch sequencing and focusing less on strikeouts seems to be paying off.
"That's really important. Sometimes I'm trying to be too nasty and I get in trouble," he said. "I get into a lot of 3-2 counts and my pitch count gets up. I need to pitch to contact, be around the zone and get a lot of soft contact."
Hernandez has the nasty changeup down in the zone to induce ground balls, but he needs to locate his fastball enough so hitters don't just lay off anything low.
Catcher Mike Zunino said Hernandez continues evolving as a pitcher, even with his long history of success.
"Ever since I've caught him, he's adapted in different ways," said Zunino. "It's impressive. That's why he's one of the best. He's going to continue to learn and find ways to get guys out. That's what is going to keep him on top."
And now Hernandez's goal is to lead his team into the playoffs for the first time in a career that seems only to be missing that October run.
"Whatever it takes," he said, echoing the team's theme this spring. "Whatever it takes to be in the playoffs and have a great year for us. We're looking pretty good. I have a lot of confidence in all the guys in the clubhouse. We're ready to roll."
Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter [
@GregJohnsMLB]() and listen to his podcast.