SEATTLE — Felix Hernandez stepped out of a Safeco Field elevator to deafening cheers from Seattle Mariners staff members. His emotions kicked in shortly after they started chanting his name. He paused to catch his breath and wiped the tears from his eyes and delivered a message: “I love you guys.”
That was March 2013, roughly a month after Hernandez agreed to remain in Seattle on a seven-year, $175 million deal. The largest contract ever given to a pitcher at the time was handed out by the Mariners. Not the usual suspects like the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox. The Mariners. And it was all because Hernandez was adamant about staying.
It’s that sentiment that’s made 2018 so difficult. The Mariners are locked in a tight playoff race, but Hernandez has struggled mightily. Entering Thursday’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Hernandez had a 5.58 ERA over 21 starts with a career-low strikeout rate. In his last five starts coming into Thursday, Hernandez posted a 7.23 ERA.
He was better against the Blue Jays, but that wasn’t enough to give the team a win. Hernandez allowed two runs on five hits over five innings of work. He struck out two and walked two in the 7-3 loss. He lowered his ERA to 5.49.
Hernandez was at the height of his powers when he signed his record-breaking deal in 2013. By 26, Hernandez had already won a Cy Young award and had two other seasons in which he finished top-5 in the voting. He was coming off a season in which he led baseball in five complete-game shutouts. He was the face of the Mariners, and already a franchise icon. He seemed invincible.
But in the five seasons since he signed his deal, Hernandez has seen his numbers decline. His ERA has been on the rise since 2015. His fastball, which used to sit 93 mph, averages a little over 90 mph these days. He rarely throws it anymore, opting for movement over power.
The team isn’t treating this as a secret. Prior to Thursday’s game, manager Scott Servais acknowledged Hernandez isn’t the same guy he was a few years back.
“Felix has always been a very good competitor,” he said. “He’s had great stuff throughout his career. That’s backed off a little bit here in the last year or two. But great stuff, not great stuff, he has a way of competing very well.”
He competed well enough to keep the Mariners in Thursday’s game, but not well enough to guarantee his spot in the rotation. Following the loss, Servais left Hernandez’s status up in the air when asked whether he earned himself another start.
“We’ll see,” he said. “We gotta keep evaluating where we’re at as a team and how he’s feeling and go from there.”
There was a question over whether Hernandez would even make Thursday’s start. Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto waited until Monday to confirm Hernandez would start the game. They were hesitant to go past that, using the phrase “as of now” when discussing Hernandez’s role.
Even if the Mariners hold off the Oakland Athletics, who they now trail by half a game in the AL wild-card race, there’s no guarantee Hernandez get a start in the postseason. James Paxton would start in a wild-card game. If Paxton’s not available, Marco Gonzales, Mike Leake and Wade LeBlanc may all be better options than Hernandez at this point. He would need the team to advance to have a shot, and even then it might be tough to use him.
As the Mariners fight to break the longest postseason drought in Major League Baseball, Hernandez fights to keep his role. The pitcher who wanted to be in Seattle long-term is hoping he can stay right where he’s at a little longer.
– – – – – – –
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Dan Wetzel: Urban Meyer might be done at Ohio State
• Tim Brown: Who gets blame for Nationals’ disappointing season?
• Charles Robinson: Response to failure will reveal if Jimmy G is worth $137M
• Michael Lee: Isaiah Thomas back in familiar spot of proving himself to NBA world