In 2005, the Tacoma Rainiers sent a particularly promising right-hander out to the mound. Though this was just his first start beyond Double-A, the young flamethrower had already made quite the name for himself in baseball circles. Prior to the 2004 season, he had been named the top prospect in the Seattle Mariners organization by Baseball America and was ranked 30th in baseball. At the end of that season, Baseball America named both his fastball and his curveball the best in the Double-A California League.
Prior to the 2005 season, he was again considered the best prospect in the Mariners farm system, as well as being ranked as the top pitching prospect in the Major Leagues and the second overall prospect, behind only Joe Mauer of the Twins (a catcher who went on to win three Gold Gloves, five Silver Sluggers, three batting titles and one American League MVP award). Signed less than three years prior at the tender age of 16, Felix Hernandez had already become one of the most exciting up-and-comers in the game.
Those who have followed the Mariners, or the game of baseball as a whole, are aware of what followed in the right-hander’s career. He’s won two ERA titles. He’s received Cy Young votes six times, and MVP votes five times. He won the Cy Young Award in 2010, while finishing as the runner-up twice (to Zack Greinke in 2009 and Corey Kluber in 2014). He is the Mariners’ career leader in wins, earned run average, strikeouts, innings pitched, and games started. His five shutouts in 2012 were the most ever by a Mariner pitcher, and his 2.14 ERA in 2014 was also a Seattle record. He’s starred in memorable Mariners commercials, and his moniker, “King Felix”, even inspired one of the greatest traditions in Safeco Field’s history: the “King’s Court” section in the left-field corner during games he pitches - a sea of screaming fans in yellow shirts who crave only one thing - strikeouts, and lots of them. Hernandez has been more than happy to oblige, racking up just over 1,200 strikeouts at Safeco Field in his career.
So it’s a pretty big deal to have him back in Tacoma, if for only a brief period. While still beloved by Mariners fans, he’s had difficulties over the past two years, both in terms of health (having spent exactly 100 days on the disabled list over the past two seasons at the time of this publication, which is a number that continues to rise with each passing day) and effectiveness (owning a rather un-Felix 3.95 ERA over that span). “That’s not good,” he said of the time spent on the disabled list. “Two straight years on the DL… that’s not good.” On April 26, he began his most recent disabled list stint, having been diagnosed with bursitis in his right (throwing) shoulder. It’s that injury that brings him back to Tacoma by way of a rehab assignment as he works his way back to Seattle.
He made his first rehab start Tuesday, on June 6. The results weren’t pretty. He was scheduled to go four innings or 65 pitches, and was pulled after just two innings and 50 pitches after being knocked around for four hits, two walks, and five earned runs.
After the start, he said he physically felt good, and that poor mechanics were to blame for his poor command, diminished velocity, and overall ineffectiveness. There was speculation that we may have seen the last of the dominant version of Felix Hernandez. He had an answer for that in a big way with his second rehab start on Sunday, June 11. Perfect through four innings, he showed better velocity, with his fastball more often in the 90-92 mph range rather than 88-89 mph, as it had been in the previous start, along with a much-improved ability to locate within the strike zone. Though he ran into a bit of trouble in the fifth inning, he looked very much like the Felix of old, fanning five while allowing just one hit over his five frames of work. He was originally scheduled for four innings, but forced manager Pat Listach’s hand by running such a low pitch count through four innings that pulling him could have delayed his return to Seattle by not helping to build additional endurance. “I knew I was going to be better today, because it had been awhile since I had been on the mound,” Hernandez said after the outing. “But last time, you know, I couldn’t find myself and was all over the place, but today it was different. I had command of my fastball and all my pitches...I was able to put the ball right where I wanted it, in and out and up and down, curveballs and changeups. I felt much better than last time.”
Despite his stated desire to make his next start at the Major League level, Hernandez has been scheduled for a third rehab start with Tacoma, which will take place at Cheney Stadium on Saturday, June 11 at 7:05 p.m. against the Salt Lake Bees. If you want to watch the Mariners great at work without making the trek up to Seattle, this is likely (and hopefully, for the Mariners’ sake) your last chance.
Beyond just the rough start by Hernandez, the Rainiers’ series against the Reno Aces was close to a nightmare scenario. Entering the series trailing Reno by two games in the standings, they lost the first three games of the series to fall five games back. The pitching staff, including Hernandez, struggled mightily over the course of those three games, allowing 34 runs. It was fitting then, that it was the pitching staff who snapped the funk in the series finale, shutting out the red-hot Aces offense over eleven innings for a walk-off 1-0 victory on Thursday, June 8. Chase de Jong tossed six scoreless innings, but was saddled with a no-decision as he was one-upped by Eric Jokisch’s seven shutout frames. Emilio Pagan tossed two perfect innings of relief before turning the ball over to closer Jean Machi in a scoreless game in the top of the ninth. Machi got a quick two outs, but worked himself into a jam by loading the bases, putting the potential go-ahead run on third base. However, he escaped potential by getting Ronnie Freeman to bounce into an inning-ending fielder’s choice. After Jonathan Aro worked two scoreless innings, the Rainiers offense finally were able to push a run across the board when Mitch Haniger (who, like Hernandez, was on a rehab assignment from Seattle) drew a bases-loaded walk to drive in the winning run. Though they were held scoreless through the first ten innings of play, the Rainier offense didn’t fail to get on base, as 16 runners reached safely. However, they struggled mightily with runners in scoring position, going just 1-14.
Two key things carried over from the walk-off thriller against Reno into the opener against Las Vegas on Friday, June 9. The first was stellar pitching, as Andrew Moore, Ryan Kelly, and Cody Martin combined for the club’s second shutout in two days, striking out 13 (including eight by Moore in his 5.1 innings of work). The second was on-base ability, as 15 Rainier batters reached base safely. Luckily for Tacoma, their recent inability to drive in some of those runners didn’t carry over. Going 3-8 with men in scoring position and blasting two solo homers, the Rainiers took an early lead with a two-run second inning and five-run third inning and never looked back, earning the win in a 9-0 rout.
DJ Peterson had quite the outing the following night, going 4-5 with a two-run homer (his eighth of the year). It was not enough, however, as Mark Lowe took a beating in the sixth inning, allowing an inherited runner to score and allowing three runs of his own to spoil the win for Dillon Overton in the 5-4 loss.
Toeing the rubber for Tacoma in the rubber match was none other than Felix Hernandez. As previously discussed, Hernandez was fantastic in his second rehab start, and picked up his first Triple-A win of the season after Jean Machi shut the door with a five-out save. Machi, a 35-year old veteran right-hander and two-time World Series champion, has been nothing short of fantastic for Tacoma this year, owning a 0.44 ERA over 20.1 innings. He’s been great in his brief call-ups to Seattle as well, allowing just one run over 7.1 innings.
Despite the series win against Las Vegas, the Rainiers were unable to gain any ground on Reno in the standings, as the Aces also won their series against Sacramento two games to one. As of press time, Tacoma (35-28) currently trails Reno (40-25) by four games.
Up with the big club: After winning nine out of ten between May 28 and July 7, the Mariners have stumbled a bit over the last week, losing four of their last six. Those struggles came to a head on Tuesday, June 13, as they allowed a whopping 20 runs on 28 hits to the Minnesota Twins, and even resorted to using catcher Carlos Ruiz to pitch the bottom of the eighth. It looks like Felix Hernandez’s long-awaited return can’t come soon enough.
Elsewhere on the farm: The MLB draft began on Monday, June 12, and Mariners fans were given a new crop of youngsters to keep an eye on. Headlining that crop was Evan White, a first baseman out of the University of Kentucky, who the club selected with the 17th pick in the first round. White was named to the All-Southeastern Conference Second Team twice during his time at Kentucky, and was named to the All-SEC Defensive team three times, including 2016 when he brought home the NCAA Gold Glove award at first base. He was also a member of the 2016 USA Baseball Collegiate National Team. Though White was the first selection the Mariners made, arguably the most exciting was second round pick Sam Carlson. Carlson, a lanky 6’-4” high-schooler out of Minnesota, was considered by many scouts to be a top-15 prospect in the draft, but fell due to concerns that he might opt to play collegiate baseball at the University of Florida rather than begin his professional career. Though he will likely cost an arm and a leg to sign, Carlson would probably become the top pitching prospect in the Mariners organization. Though it unfortunately wasn’t a pick made by the Mariners, Curtis High School’s Sammy Abbott was selected in the 8th round by the Chicago White Sox. Though Abbott, a multi-sport star who led Curtis to back-to-back state titles in water polo, had signed a letter of intent to continue playing water polo at Long Beach State University, he’ll now have to reconsider, as the prospect of professional baseball and the signing bonus that comes with it, enters into the picture.