With "King Felix," The Future Is Near

RHP Felix Hernandez (Photo/Joe Kaiser)

They don't call him "The King" for nothing. Felix Hernandez may have just turned 19 last Friday, but the teenager's sheer dominance in his first two pro seasons has Mariners fans resting the future of the ballclub squarely on his shoulders. Some might find such expectations to be overwhelming for a player of Hernandez's age. Felix says bring it on.

Hernandez is still a baby, 19 now for all of three days, but his lack of experience is hardly a limiting factor. If he were a tree, he'd develop two rings for every year. That's just the way he is, a guy who naturally "gets it" earlier than those around him.

The natural ability has shown from an early age. Ask the right-hander how he learned to pitch, and he'll shrug is shoulders. The shrug isn't because he doesn't understand English – he's picked up the language very well since his days in Everett less than two years ago – but because he doesn't have an answer.

"Nobody," said Hernandez, almost embarrassed. "I taught myself."

That composure, that command, that ability to paint the corners with his fastball and keep hitters off balance with an array of devastating off-speed pitches, his curveball and change-up, all self-taught.

Back in Venezuela, Hernandez says he always had a baseball in his hands. And luckily, thanks to his older brother Moises (a Baltimore farmhand), he also always had someone to play catch with.

"I'd just practice and practice and practice," said Hernandez of his younger days back home. "By myself and with my brother."

In time, he developed his pitches, and by the age of 17 in 2003 he was already dominating the Northwest League. By 18, he was mowing down California League batters so frequently that he was promoted to Double-A, where he had his way with the Texas League as a member of the San Antonio Missions.

Heading into this season, the hype surrounding Hernandez's golden right arm began to pick up. What started as Seattle's Best Kept Secret two seasons back turned into a circus. Baseball America ranked Hernandez as the top pitching prospect in baseball for 2005. Experts drew comparisons to a young Dwight Gooden. Even the average fan began to recognize the name "Felix Hernandez."

So when Spring Training started, it would have been easy for the teenager to believe things he shouldn't have. That his right arm really was golden. That he really was a can't-miss prospect. That he had a good chance at making the big league roster by the time the club broke camp. Instead, Hernandez kept things in perspective.

He tried to leave his expectations out of the situation, keeping things in the Mariners' hands. If he ended up with the big league club, great, if he didn't it was off to Tacoma for a bit more experience in the minors before the inevitable late-season callup.

"I just have to do my job, that's all," said the hard-throwing righty. "That wasn't my decision. That was the decision of the Seattle Mariners. If they decided to put me in Triple-A, then I knew I had to do my job there."

That's what Seattle decided, wisely, sending the promising talent back to the minors. Felix, who claims to be confident any time he's on the mound, appeared up to the task in his first start with the Rainiers on Friday. The righty struck out four and didn't allow an earned run to cross the plate in six innings against Fresno, only raising his stock even more.

Can a ridiculously high stock rise even further? It can for Hernandez, and it does seemingly every time he steps to the mound. A big reason for that is his ability to adjust to the batters, using whatever pitch he needs in any count to get an out. Against the Grizzlies in game one, that's what he did.

"He went out there and he didn't allow the situations to catch up with him," said Tacoma pitching coach Rafael Chaves. "He was able to see what the other club was trying to do. In the first couple of innings, they were hitting his fastball, and then he started using his change-up and his curve."

A lot of young pitchers have strong arms that can hit 95 mph on the radar gun, but "King Felix" isn't limited to the heater. It's his other pitches that make him the can't-miss prospect he's become.

"It's pretty uncommon," said Chaves of Hernandez's incredible command of his off-speed pitches, "when you think that at his age a lot of guys are just getting out of high school."

Hernandez admits he didn't think he'd move through the minor leagues as fast as he has, but at the same time he's not exactly stunned at what he's done. Confident, mature and as talented as they come, there's a reason he's the guy many have projected as future ace in Seattle's rotation.

And if you ask Felix, that's just fine.

"I don't feel the pressure," he said.

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