Mariners relying on their king early

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By Brandon Cline, Staff Writer

Another start, another milestone reached by Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez, who has begun the 2015 season with a 6-0 record and a 1.85 ERA, a start to the season that the club has desperately needed from him.

Hernandez passed the 2,000 career strikeouts mark on May 10 and in the start before on May 4, became the all-time strikeouts leader in MLB history by a Venezuelan-born pitcher, passing fellow Cy Young winner Johan Santana.

The 29-year-old is the fourth youngest pitcher in MLB history to reach the 2,000 strikeouts mark, behind Sam McDowell and Hall of Famers Bert Blyleven and Walter Johnson, who are fifth and ninth in MLB history in strikeouts, respectively. According to the Bill James Career Assessments, Hernandez is on pace to end his career with 3,633 strikeouts, seventh-most in MLB history.

Hernandez has been the rock in an otherwise unsteady rotation for the Mariners to begin the 2015 campaign, with the Mariners sitting at 14-17 as of May 10. After a 4-6 road trip that ended in brutal, back-to-back, walk-off losses, the Mariners returned home and swept the Oakland Athletics in the weekend series.

Of the six Mariners pitchers to have made at least three starts this season, J. A. Happ is the only other starter to record an ERA lower than 3.50, currently sitting at 3.29. For the Mariners, who are 7-0 in Hernandez’s starts, it’s crucial to have an ace where they can almost guarantee a victory every fifth day he steps on the mound.

Averaging 9.25 strikeouts per nine innings and holding a 6.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio, Hernandez is aging like fine wine, sacrificing velocity for location and movement on his pitches.

Although he is just 29, Hernandez is entering his 11th major league season and has thrown 2,109 innings over that span. He’s thrown the 16th-most innings amongst active pitchers and no pitcher higher on the list is younger than 34 years old.

The face of Mariners baseball since he broke into the big leagues in 2005, Hernandez is approaching Ken Griffey Jr. levels of adoration amongst fans, if he’s not already there. “King Felix” may end up surpassing Griffey Jr. in the laurels of baseball’s greatest and can already make a case for the Hall of Fame before he’s even reached 30 years old.

As it stands, Hernandez’s 2,001 strikeouts rank 72nd in MLB history and is likely to break into the top 55 before season’s end. He won the Cy Young in 2010 and has two runner-up finishes to his name and has 2.42 Cy Young award shares, 13th-most in MLB history and ahead of prolific pitchers such as Bob Gibson, Catfish Hunter and Warren Spahn. His perfect game in 2012 was the 21st in the modern era — beginning in 1900 — and is still the last one to be thrown in the MLB.

Hernandez was one of only four pitchers to have 1,900 strikeouts, throw 2,000 innings and accumulate 125 wins before turning 29. The other three — Blyleven, Johnson and Don Drysdale — are in the Hall of Fame.

The list of his accolades goes on, but one feat has evaded Hernandez: pitching in a postseason game. The Mariners haven’t made the playoffs in Hernandez’s 11 years, coming painstakingly close last season. Hernandez has been praised for standing by the team that signed him when he was a teenager in Venezuela, but that means Hernandez has had to sacrifice a chance at a bigger spotlight and greater playoff chances for his loyalty.

“I know the fans in Seattle. That’s going to be something different,” said Hernandez about reaching the playoffs in an interview with Jon Morosi on Feb. 23. “We’ve got one goal in here: to be in October. Everybody here wants to win. [McClendon] wants to win. We want to win. The city of Seattle wants to be in October. That’s the main goal.”

If the Mariners are to make the playoffs for the first time since 2001, Hernandez is going to have to continue being the ace he has been to start the season and throughout much of his career. It’s no easy task, but it’s a job fit for a king.