King Felix Dominating Again

Felix Hernandez's first season of pro ball in 2003 was so outstanding that Baseball America named him the Mariners No. 1 prospect heading into 2004. At age 18, Hernandez is already at High-A Inland Empire and is among the California League leaders in wins, strikeouts and ERA. InsidethePark's Jonathan Bianchet talked to Hernandez and several members of the 66ers to learn more about the teenage sensation.

Over the past month, most 18-year olds were overwhelmed with the pressure of finals and graduation. Down in San Bernardino, Calif., 18-year-old Felix Hernandez found himself dealing with another kind of pressure.

Playing for the High-A Inland Empire 66ers, Hernandez, a baby-faced Venezuelan who signed nearly two years ago with the Seattle Mariners organization, has faced the difficult task of living up the hype. Since arriving on the scene with short-season Everett last season and posting eye-popping numbers, young Felix has been all the rage.

His 97 mph fastball, devastating curveball, and incredible maturity on the mound were enough for Baseball America to name him the Mariners No. 1 prospect heading into 2004.

Hernandez says the hype hasn't bothered him.

"I don't really feel that much pressure," said the hard-throwing teenager, using outfielder Jon Nelson as a translator. "The interviews I do just motivate me to do better."

Motivation and pure talent have driven Hernandez through the first half of the 2004 season with Inland Empire. Many believed the Mariners would take it slow with the right-hander and start him at Mid-A Wisconsin this season, which is where he finished in 2003. Instead, Hernandez was sent to play for the 66ers.

As the first half comes to a close the weekend, Hernandez has matched or exceeded every expectation thrown at him. His seven wins ranks second in the California League, his 3.06 ERA is fourth best in the league, and his 93 strikeouts are good for the top mark.

Not bad for an 18-year-old, huh.

"Its just a matter of him getting his work in and getting the ball every fifth day, said manager Daren Brown. "He has shown he can throw his secondary pitches for strikes, which is something you don't see from an 18-year-old."

Nobody knows that more than Tim Salmon.

When Salmon faced Hernandez in a rehab assignment on the first day of June, the 11-year major league veteran struck out twice against the future star. Afterwards, Salmon told reporters that he could not believe how he as able to locate and have command of all his pitches.

Pitching coach Dwight Bernard, who has helped Hernandez this year at keeping the ball down, echoed Salmons sentiments.

"He is dead solid at throwing 95-96 and anytime you have that with command of all pitches, that is something special," said Bernard.

Already this year Hernandez has matched the innings he pitched last year in Everett and Wisconsin. Over the course of last year, the phenom appeared in 13 games and pitched in 69 innings. He struck out 91 and only walked 27 batters. Hernandez then pitched in Venezuela against more experienced batters in winter ball and continued to shine.

In six starts in his native country, Hernandez pitched in six games and finished with a 1-1 record. The Mariners shut him down early - before he pitched 100 innings - to prevent the teenager's arm from being overworked.

This year, Hernandez will easily surpass the 100-inning mark. Through 14 starts with the 66ers, he has gone 79.1 innings, yet he's shown no signs of wearing down. His last start may have been the best of his career, as he hurled 8.2 innings of shutout baseball before giving up a run and being removed from the game. It was the deepest into a game he'd ever went.

"We're going to keep an eye on him like we do with all of our young pitchers," said Bernard, who at times receives three to five calls a week asking about Hernandez. "He may not have too many chances to close out a game because of the pitch counts we go by."

Maybe more than anything, the poise Hernandez has shown at such an early age has stood out this season. When runners reach base against him, the opponents' batting averages drop from .279 to .244. And when opponents are in scoring position it drops even lower, to .231. Most impressive, though, is when there are two outs and runners in scoring position. In that scenario, Hernandez's opponents have a microscopic batting average of .121, a clear characteristic of a big-game pitcher.

"The confidence I have in myself has helped me relax on the mound," said Hernandez, who calls home four times a week to his family in Valencia, Venezuela.

What has also helped is the confidence the teenager has in his battery mate, catcher Rene Rivera.

"Rene is a tremendous catcher," said Hernandez of his teammate and fellow All-Star. "I have a lot of confidence in him and the pitches he calls. It has also enabled me to learn more about the hitters."

Rivera, who catches Hernandez every fifth day and has been playing professionally in the United States for three years, can't say enough about the young right-hander.

"I can't believe his arm," he said. "It's amazing to have a fastball like that with a good curve ball."

But the big question is: what is next and when will it happen?

"That is (the organization's) decision," said Hernandez, who was able to understand the question before Nelson could translate it. "All I can do is get better and better."

Pat Rice, the Mariners minor league pitching coordinator, said Hernandez is so advanced for his age that it's difficult to hold him back and keep his development at a slow pace.

"With the stuff that he has, Felix could be thrown into the majors right now and hang in there," said Rice. "You just don't want to hurt his confidence. You want to make sure he's mentally prepared."

The future is undeniably bright for the 2004 All-Star, perhaps more than it is for any other Mariners' minor league player. Seattle may not want to rush the phenom, but as Felix Hernandez continues to grow and mature there may be no stopping him.

Seattle Clubhouse Top Stories