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.