Felix Hernandez lacks national exposure and run support in Seattle, but he basks in the communal atmosphere the city provides. When he stares in for the sign at Safeco Field, he can feel the warmth envelop him regardless of the circumstances. Rain or shine, Rangers or Athletics, closed roof or open air, it's a constant companion.
He made a long-term commitment to stay with the organization rather than explore other opportunities because the Mariners paid him $175 million over seven years through the 2019 season. But he's also determined to punctuate his time in Seattle with an exclamation point rather than a question mark.
Time has sneaked up on Hernandez with the subtlety of a Pacific Northwest drizzle. He is 28 years old now, in his 10th season, with a Cy Young Award and four All-Star Game appearances to his credit. And he's off to yet another strong start, with a 3-1 record, a 2.53 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.3. Any discussion about baseball aces needs to include his name alongside Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright and a select few other marquee starters.
Too bad that's not the only list his name adorns.
When Hernandez takes the mound Wednesday against Oakland, it will be his 277th big league start without a postseason appearance. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Aaron Harang, with 326 starts, is the only active pitcher with more regular-season starts and no postseason outings. Next in line come Paul Maholm (247 career starts) and Kansas City teammates Bruce Chen and Jeremy Guthrie (222 each).
Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins holds the record for pitchers with 594 starts, so Hernandez has a ways to go to make history. Yet the question is still worth posing: Is this Hernandez's ultimate destiny, to be a civic treasure without a chance on the national stage?
Hernandez approaches the question with the same resolve he uses when it's the seventh inning, he's passed the 100-pitch mark and he needs to summon an extra 2-3 mph to make a hitter chase. The thought of six more years of futility doesn't even cross his mind.
"We believe in this team," he said. "We believe in our talent. We're gonna get there. I have no doubts at all."
If and when Hernandez breaks through, many others will rejoice on his behalf. Upon arrival at spring training, new manager Lloyd McClendon brought Hernandez into his office and had a sit-down with his star right-hander. A month into the season, the Mariners are 16-15 and looking rather pesky.
"He can see the tide starting to turn a little bit," McClendon said. "He can see this team getting better. I told him in the spring, 'Remember where you came from and how tough it was? When we get there -- and we will get there -- I want you to enjoy this journey and really celebrate.' His time is coming."
It can't come soon enough for the Mariners, who haven't been relevant nationally since Ichiro Suzuki captured the American League MVP and Rookie of the Year awards while Lou Piniella was guiding the team to 116 wins in 2001. It was so long ago that "Who Let the Dogs Out?" was still the team theme song.