Felix Hernandez: Ace in the Hole

TACOMA, Wash. - Mariners phenom Felix Hernandez recently returned from the disabled list and jumped into a relief role for the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers. The bursitis injury to his right shoulder prompted the M's to put on the proverbial kid gloves and limit the ace's workload, sending Hernandez to the bullpen for the time being.

While the M's prized hurler prefers starting and is currently pain-free, he isn't upset or frustrated with the move and maintains that all he wants to do is what's best for the organization, as well as himself.

"I feel good," said Hernandez, referring to the health of his right shoulder. "I'm so-so about pitching in relief because I like to throw a lot of innings, but I've thrown so many innings this season and a lot of pitches. And with my arm injury, I understand it (the move)."

In the case of many pitchers, moving from the rotation to the bullpen might stunt one's necessary development and potentially leave a negative mental effect on a fragile mind.

With Hernandez, there are no such worries. The 19-year-old is wise beyond his years and his nickname, "King Felix," is as fitting as any in the game. And his stuff? Well, let's just say that the 6-foot-3 right-hander has an arsenal with a nickname of its own.

"The Filth" consists of a 93-97 mph four-seam fastball, a two-seam heater with late-tailing action and three plus-plus off-speed offerings that are all considered out pitches.

Hernandez's curve ball is a 12-to-6 style breaking ball that drops off the table, and according to those who have caught him, it's a tough pitch for hitters to handle.

"It's unhittable," said former Rainiers backstop Bryce Terveen. "Hitters have no chance with it."

The two-seam fastball cuts in either direction, depending on where Hernandez wants it to go. An effortless pitch for the Venezuelan, the two-seamer sits in the 91-95 mph range and induces a lot of weak ground balls.

"I just throw it down the middle and it tails away from, or into the hitter," said Hernandez. "I throw that a lot more this year."

In the two years since his professional debut in Everett back in the summer of 2003, Hernandez has developed his pitches consistently, and his change-up might be the biggest beneficiary of The King's hard work and dedication.

"I use my change-up more now," said Hernandez. "Last year I used it like two times a game but now I will throw it so much more, and to both left and right-handed hitters."

The kid's change-up might be his most important pitch and, since hitters can adjust to simple raw velocity, having a usable change-up is imperative for a pitcher like Hernandez.

"I think he's starting to realize he can't just throw the heat all the time," said Rainiers skipper Dan Rohn. "Hitters will catch up with the fastball at some point and that change-up is the equalizer. The harder he throws it, the harder they hit it. The change can offset that for him and he's coming along quite well with that pitch."

With three plus pitches and a variation of the fastball giving him a fourth option, Hernandez's arsenal would seem complete.

Eau Contraire.

Hidden deep down in his pocket, somewhere beyond the rest of all you'll find in a ballplayer's toolbox, is a nasty slider that Hernandez has yet to showcase – at the request of the organization.

"He has the best fastball, the best curveball and when he starts throwing the slider, he'll have the best one of those, too," said Pat Rice, the M's minor league pitching coordinator, earlier this season.

The club has sidelined the pitch to lighten the strain on Hernandez's arm, but at some point early in his big-league career, the slider will be unveiled. No, it's not a myth – the pitch does exist.

"I won't throw it anytime soon," said Hernandez. "I do have one, but they asked me not to use it right now. I threw a few here and there in Arizona."

In two years, Hernandez has gone from potential major league rotation candidate to can't-miss staff ace. Under the watchful eye of Rice, pitching coaches Brad Holman, Scott Budner and Dwight Bernard, as well as M's big league pitching coach Bryan Price, he has flourished and is in the process of reaching his maximum potential.

But under the tutelage of Rainiers pitching coach Rafael Chaves, Hernandez is taking the final step toward the big leagues. It's a step that began back in Venezuela when the top pitching prospect in the last 25 years was merely a child.

"I was about six years old," said Hernandez of the day he first picked up a glove and a baseball. "I played shortstop."

Yeah, Hernandez, too, like many others, started out as a shortstop and it wasn't until a few years later that he began pitching on a regular basis.

Hernandez's father, Felix Hernandez, Sr., was a big baseball fan in Venezuela, but was not the reason junior started to play the game.

"He liked baseball," said Hernandez of his dad. "But he didn't play. I started playing because that is what you do in Venezuela. When you are little, you play baseball."

Three years after Hernandez signed his first professional contract, Chaves entered the picture and has helped mold his future. Like every single Mariners pitcher who has ever worked under Chaves, Hernandez speaks glowingly of his mentor.

"He's the best pitching coach in the world," said Hernandez. "He's helped me a lot with my pitches – everything. I feel really good (working) with him."

At the age of 10, Hernandez took to the pitcher's mound. Nine years later, he's on the brink of breaking into the big leagues and becoming one of the youngest players in the league – just like he has been in the Pacific Coast League all season.

Hernandez has befriended fellow countryman and former M's pitcher Freddy Garcia, idolizing his talents and keeps up with the White Sox star on a regular basis.

Getting to where Garcia is now is something Hernandez admittedly has on his mind, though he's unsure what his reaction will be when the time comes.

"I don't know what I'd do," said Hernandez. "It's exciting and I think a lot about that. I want to be in the big leagues.

"I'll just keep working hard, that's all I can do. It's very exciting to be where I am and when you work hard, that happens."

From the ball yards of Venezuela, where he and older brother Moises, a pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles farm system, grew up learning the game, to being the talk of the town of a fan-frenzied, big-league baseball team. Hernandez has come a long way –in a hurry – and realizes the anticipation fans have as they wait for the first time he takes the hill at Safeco Field.

"Yeah, I like that," said Hernandez cracking his trademark smile. "I like the thought of that."

When asked if he knew how good he is and how good he can ultimately be, the teenage sensation hesitated, then replied with a smile.

"Yeah, I think I do, I don't know," he said. "But I have to keep working hard to be as good as I want to be. But my job is here. I can't worry about Seattle until I have earned being there."

Each time The King toes the rubber, he takes one step closer.

Jason A Churchill is the Executive Editor at InsidethePark.com and can be reached via e-mail at JasonAChurchill@InsideThePark.com

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