SEATTLE – Felix Hernandez, the real Felix, the one known as King Felix, the one with his own section at Safeco Field called King’s Court, yeah that guy. That’s who showed up Thursday night to the delight of a record sellout crowd on a chilly night.
It was the Hernandez of old, shutting out the dangerous Cleveland Indians lineup through 5 1/3 innings before leaving the game after going three pitches over his 80-pitch limit for the night.
Hernandez stepped up and so did a few of this teammates in a 2-1 opening night victory in front of 47,149 boisterous fans, the largest crowd ever to see a regular-season game at Safeco.
“The crowd was unbelievable,’’ Hernandez said. “As soon as I walked to the mound it was electric. I like the big stage. My sinker was really good and I had a good curveball going.”
Good enough to outduel to 2017 Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, who pitched seven scoreless innings after one fateful pitch to Nelson Cruz in the first inning.
On the first pitch he saw of 2018, Cruz took up where he left off last season and launched a towering 2-run homer to center that gave the Mariners an early 2-0 lead.
“It was like a playoff atmosphere out there,’’ Cruz said. “The fans really came out and supported us. We were so excited. I just wanted to see a pitch that I could drive. Kluber makes very few mistakes, but that pitch was kind of elevated. I thought it was going to be an out, then it went out.”
Hernandez made the most of the early lead. The talk through most of spring was a constant debate on who should be the opening day starter between James Paxton and Hernandez.
Those in the Paxton camp said he deserved it because he was the team’s best pitcher last season. Others said the honor should go to Hernandez, the former Cy Young Award winner who had earned the right to take the hill for the opener despite an injury-plagued 2017 season.
Hernandez got the call for his 10th consecutive opening day start after pitching only five innings in the spring, taking a line drive off his arm in his first spring start and missing most of March.
So doubts were abundant and many people feared the worst for Hernandez, who was coming off the most disappointing year of his career. Almost everyone except Hernandez.
“Nope, not surprised,’’ Hernandez said with glee. “I told you.”
Hernandez was 6-5 with a 4.36 ERA last year while starting only 16 games. But he didn’t become one of the best pitchers in baseball over the last decide by doubting himself.
“I can’t say enough about the job Felix did tonight,’’ said Seattle manager Scott Servais. “His curveball was outstanding. But Mike Marjama might have been the most valuable player of the game for me.”
Marjama is a name many casual fans won’t know. He is a 28-year-old catcher who was a bit of a surprise at making the team as Mike Zunino’s back up.
Marjama learned a few hours before the game that his first MLB opening day also would be a starting assignment. Zunino strained his rib cage in batting practice Wednesday, which tightened up on him Thursday.
The worst-case scenario almost happened in the second inning when Marjama was hit on his catching hand by the bat on Edwinr Encarnacion, who swings as hard as anyone in baseball.
Marjama was called for catcher interference, but more importantly, was in obvious pain. After a few minutes talking to the trainers, he stayed in the game.
“I didn’t have an option,’’ Marjama said. “It’s part of the game and I just had to suck it up.”
Hernandez, not an easy man to catch because of his sharp-breaking sinker, was impressed.
“He did a great job,’’ Hernandez said. “When he got hit [by the bat] and stayed in the game, I thought, ‘Man, he’s a tough guy.’ But before that, I thought, ‘We don’t have any more catchers.”
Servais said Zunino could have played in an emergency, but he probably would have gone with backup infielder Andrew Romine behind the plate. Marjama wasn’t about to leave the game as long as he still had two hands.
“I’ve been preparing for this opportunity for 28 years,’’ he said. “Catching Felix and watching the way he operates, there’s no one like him. It’s the best day of my baseball career, so far.”
It wasn’t the best day of Hernandez career, but it was one where he showed the doubters he still can get it done.
The Mariners bullpen also came through, including a difficult save for Edwin Diaz, who hit two batters in the ninth. The Indians has runners at second and third with two outs before Diaz struck out Tyler Naquin to end it.
“Eddie hung in there,’’ Servais said. “He executed the pitches he needed to get out of a jam. But I really want to thank the fans for their support tonight. Our guys really fed off it.”
Especially the 31-year-old starter on the mound, who looked like the ace he once was.
Baseball season starts Thursday for all 30 MLB teams. Here’s my annual fearless predictions on how things will shake out:
American League division winners: Houston Astros, Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees.
AL Wild Cards: Boston Red Sox and Seattle Mariners -- It’s a toss-up on which team wins the AL East between the Yankees and Red Sox. The Mariners have a strong lineup that will score a lot of runs, but the big question is whether their starting pitching can hold up.
AL Champ: Astros -- Deepest and most talented team in many years. They could challenge for the MLB wins record of 116 (set by the Cubs 1906 and the Mariners in 2001).
National League division winners: Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Washington Nationals.
NL Wild Cards: Colorado Rockies and Milwaukee Brewers.
NL Champ: Nationals -- A new manager in Dave Martinez and it may be now or never for the Nats since Bryce Harper will be a free agent after this season.
World Series winner: Astros
AL MVP: Shortstop Carlos Correa, Astros -- Already the best young player in baseball, and at 23, he’s going to get better. Correa was hitting .320 with 20 homers and 67 RBI last season before suffering a thumb injury on July 17. He missed 42 games. If he’s healthy for the full 2018 season his numbers likely will be 30-plus homers and 120-plus RBI.
AL Cy Young Award: Right-hander Corey Kluber, Indians -- He would become the first AL pitcher to win it back-to-back since Pedro Martinez in 1999-2000. No reason to think he won’t do it after going 18-4 last year with a 2.25 ERA.
NL MVP: Third baseman Nolan Arenado, Rockies – Over the past three seasons, Arenado has averaged 40 homers and 131 RBI with a .296 average.
NL CY Young winner: Left-hander Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers -- Not only the best pitcher of his era, but one of the best in history. He has a career ERA of 2.36 in 10 MLB seasons to go with a 144-64 record. His ERA over the last five seasons is 1.95, an unimaginable stat today. Kershaw has 2,120 strikeouts in 1,935 innings pitched. And he’s only 30 years old. By the way, Kershaw did not give up an earned run in spring training.
Best player at each position:
1B: Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks -- A career .299 average in seven MLB seasons, averaging 31 homers and 108 RBI the last three years.
2B: Jose Altuve, Astros -- The 2017 AL MVP.
SS: Correa -- Can do everything well.
3B: Arenado -- Did I also mention he has won five Gold Gloves?
C: Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants -- Plays 1B sometimes now, but hit .320 in 2017 and he’s still a rock behind the plate. In 99 starts at catcher last season, he had only one passed ball and threw out 38 percent of runners trying to steal on him.
CF: Mike Trout, California Angels -- Most would say he’s still the best all-around player in baseball. I think Correa may take the claim away from him, but Trout’s greatness is clear.
RF: Aaron Judge, Yankees -- An evolving young slugger who still has a few flaws in his game, but superstardom likely is here to stay.
LF: Giancarlo Stanton, Yankees -- Will be a DH most of the time for the Yankees while Brett Gardner plays left. However, I want Stanton and Cruz in my lineup if I’m picking the best of the best.
DH: Nelson Cruz, Mariners -- No one in baseball works harder to become the best player he can be.
SP: Kershaw -- A free agent after the season. Another Cy Young and the Dodgers will need to give him the city of Malibu to keep him.
Closer: Kenley Jansen, Dodgers -- Only one blown save in 42 chances last season while making 65 appearances, averaging 15.6 strikeouts per nine innings.
Richard Sherman has a message for everyone in Seattle, especially the ones who turned on him when he signed a contract with the San Francisco 49ers.
“Seattle is still where my kids will go to school,’’ Richard wrote on the Players’ Tribune website. “It's where I met Ashley [his fiancée]. It's where her parents live. It’s where we own a home that we don’t plan on selling. And I will continue to work with kids in the surrounding communities the way I always have.”
I placed that statement on Twitter Tuesday to make sure people realize how Sherman feels. It has garnered more than 47,000 total engagement in less than 24 hours, which says a lot about how much Sherman means to so many fans in this city.
A few of those fans have taken to social media to publicly berate the man they once beloved. And Sherman just can’t understand the haters, considering everything he did as a Pro Bowl cornerback for the Seahawks, helping lead the team to back-to-back Super Bowls.
“This whole process has definitely made me more aware of the hate and hypocrisy out there,’’ Sherman wrote. “Fans calling me a traitor and burning my jersey know if they got fired and a competitor offered them more money, they'd take it in a heartbeat.”
Sherman wanted to clarify a few points that he felt have been misconstrued. So he wrote the story titled, How It All Went Down.
“The Seahawks didn't ask me to take a pay cut,’’ Sherman wrote. “There was no negotiation. They informed me they intended to release me. I didn’t choose to leave Seattle. The Seahawks chose to let me go.”
And the Seahawks also chose to let their division rivals have him. Sherman said Seahawks general manager John Schneider asked Sherman to give the team the chance to match any offer he received.
After he received the offer from the 49ers (a heavily incentive-based, 3-year-deal with $3 million signing bonus) Sherman did exactly what Schneider asked of him. He called, but Schneider declined to match the offer.
So Sherman’s time as a Seahawks star came to an end. And as one might expect, he’s a little bitter about it.
“I hope they look back and understand I gave everything I had to that franchise,’’ Sherman wrote. “I played through an elbow injury, a wrist injury, an MCL, and more sprains and strains than I can even count. … And before I tore [the Achilles], I had been dealing with it for a while. I knew it was gonna go at some point, but I kept on playing because the other guys in the locker room were counting on me.
“Seven years and I didn’t miss a game until my Achilles finally went. And this is what I get. At the first sign of adversity … they let me go.”
It hurts even though Sherman said he understand it’s a business.
This isn’t a criticism of the Seahawks. They felt the $11 million Sherman would earn in 2018 was more than they could afford to pay with all the other needs the team has to address.
Teams and players move on. Just part of the game, but Sherman doesn’t deserve criticism, either.
It’s OK to hate that he’s a 49er now. It’s not OK to hate the man who gave his heart and soul to the team he was forced to leave.
SEATTLE – As the saying goes, it’s survive and advance for tournament play in March.
The Washington Huskies were a prime example of that theory Wednesday night in a 77-74 victory over Boise State at Alaska Airlines Arena.
In a frantic final minute, the Huskies watched a 9-point lead evaporate into Boise State taking a 3-point shot to try to force overtime.
Fortunately this time for UW, the shot by Lexus Williams was in and out off the rim and the Huskies survived in the opening round of the NIT.
Washington also overcame a brilliant performance by Boise State’s 6-7 senior guard Chandler Hutchinson. The Mountain West Player of the Year scored 39 points and grabbed 14 rebounds.
“They have one of the best players in the country that no one knows about,’’ UW coach Mike Hopkins said of Hutchinson. “I almost had a cardiac there at the end.”
Hutchinson made 11 of 17 shots and 14 of 19 free throws. The rest of the team made 12 of 38 shots and six free throws.
“He’s great, but one person can’t do it all,” said UW guard Matisse Thybulle, who had 18 points, five rebounds and four steals. “We were able to hold down some of their other key players.”
The Huskies were lucky that Hutchinson didn’t have the ball for the final shot. Williams missed all seven shots he took in the game. His first 3-point attempt at the end was partially blocked by Dom Green, but Williams still had time to take one last shot before the buzzer. He almost made it.
“I’ll tell you something,’’ Hopkins said. “We beat a really good basketball team tonight. They have a heck of a program.”
Now the Huskies (21-12) try to beat a much better team on Monday night when they face top-seeded St. Mary’s, a group of players still seething over not getting picked for the NCAA Tournament. It showed Tuesday night when the Gaels crushed Southeastern Louisiana 89-45.
UW will need freshman Jaylen Nowell to play like he played against Boise State, scoring 25 points and grabbing six rebounds. It was his best effort since soring 25 against Seattle U back in November.
Nowell may be UW’s most talented player, but he’s struggled at times over the last month, scoring 12 points or less in six of the last nine games before Wednesday.
His biggest play of the night actually was an assist on a towering alley-oop pass to Thybulle, who leaped to the sky for a monstrous dunk that got the crowd roaring.
“We saw it was there earlier,’’ Nowell said. “I told [Thybulle] I was going to throw it up there and to go get it.”
It was a dramatic moment, but the Huskies won this game with their defense, coming up with nine steal and nine blocks, which led to a 13-8 advantage on fast breaks.
They will need that type of aggressive play to have a chance against St. Mary’s.
It’s a sad day in Seattle. Richard Sherman, the best cornerback of his era and an icon in this city, is no longer a Seahawk after being released Friday.
Sherman is much more than a football player to fans of this team and the people who know him. He is larger than life, beloved in Seattle and berated almost everywhere else. If you’ve only seen him from afar on TV and view him as a loud-mouth braggart who wants to stir up controversy, you are mistaken.
Sherman is not the person you think he is. In more than three decades of covering sports, I've never met a more caring, more dynamic, more determined, more dedicated or more thought-provoking athlete than Sherman. And I've never met any human being with a bigger heart.
Now Sherman will show what’s in his heart once again, probably with another NFL team. Sherman’s last game for Seattle came four months ago when he ruptured an Achilles tendon.
The Seahawks, a team in desperate need of salary-cap space, wanted him to take a pay cut from his $11 million salary this season as he comes back from the injury. Acting as his own agent, Sherman refused. His pride just wouldn’t allow him to do it. Not yet, anyway.
Knowing Sherman, he probably will want to sign with another team that will enable him to say at the end of the 2018 season, “I told you so.”
He did that coming out of Stanford as a fifth-round draft choice when many NFL teams felt he was too slow and too lanky to play cornerback at the highest level. Sherman knew the name of every cornerback drafted ahead of him. And he was better than all of them.
He had another “I told you so’’ moment when the Seahawks won the Super Bowl in his third NFL season. He will turn 30 at the end of this month, coming off the first major injury of his career.
Now he has something to prove again. And he will somewhere. The Seahawks say they would like to have him back under a restructured deal. They made a classy public statement Friday:
“Thank you for helping win championships, shape our culture and define success in Seattle. We love you and your unwavering competitiveness, confidence and fierce passion for football and life. For that, you will always be a Hawk!”
It’s possible Sherman and the Seahawks work something out, but I doubt it. This team is moving on with younger players and my guess is Sherman will want a fresh start elsewhere.
Sherman still was playing at a high level last season on a weakened Achilles tendon, knowing it could snap at any moment. He has some remarkable football moments left in him.
He also will continue a bigger mission as a man willing to take a stand on important issues of the day, trying to make a difference. Sherman made it out of Compton in Los Angeles to graduate from Stanford with honors.
He frequently speaks to kids where he grew up to say “If I can do it, you can do it.” Sherman also donates time, money and athletic equipment to schools in the inner city. He has raised millions of dollars for charitable organizations.
Regardless of what happens going forward, Sherman will go down as one of the greatest cornerbacks ever to play the game with four Pro Bowl appearances, three All-Pro selections and the most interceptions in the league since 2013.
What will matter more in the end is his continuing stance as a provocative voice for change where it is needed and a leader in the community for helping others.