With 2014 schedule out, Felix should next pitch in … 2014

September 11, 2013 

Major League Baseball on Tuesday revealed its tentative 2014 schedule.

Why the rush to unveil 2014 when three weeks still remain in the 2013 regular season? Maybe it’s to remind fans of teams irrelevant to the pennant races – fans of the Seattle Mariners, for instance – that the slate will be clean next spring.

Except the new schedule has the look of soggy salad that’s spent too much time in the refrigerator produce bin. For the sixth consecutive season, the Mariners will open on the road against a team from California.

You’d think MLB would adhere to a policy assuring teams a season opener at home every other year. You’d think a team relying on a retractable roof as a guarantee against rainouts would find a place in that season-opening rotation.

Oh, well. While the Seahawks enjoy an exalted status as the NFL’s chic franchise, their next-door neighbors in Seattle’s stadium district are baseball’s dispensable foot wipes. On tap in 2014: Six separate visits to Texas, because MLB’s schedule makers couldn’t figure out a way to fit Houston and Dallas on the same road trip.

Then again, daunting itineraries are nothing new for the Mariners, who soon will conclude the road portion of their 2013 schedule with three games in the Central time zone (St. Louis), followed by three games in the Eastern time zone (Detroit), followed by three games in the Pacific time zone (Anaheim).

Unless you’ve got a rooting interest in the playoff-bound Tigers or Cardinals, the only intrigue about this trip is whether

the Mariners will exert a professional effort toward games that mean nothing to them. For their most prominent player – the lone star on a roster occupied by prospects and projects – effort doesn’t figure to be problem.

“We’re trying to finish strong,” ace pitcher Felix Hernandez said the other night. “We’re trying to win as many games as we can.”

King Felix gets it. His determination to finish strong is a testament to the virtues he embodies: Perseverance, competitiveness, a cheerful disposition amid perpetual calamity that recalls the eternal optimism once associated with Ernie Banks.

As much as I admire the King’s refusal to throw in the towel, it would be in his best interest – and, by extension, his team’s best interest – if the Mariners threw in the towel for him.

I’ve seen all I want to see of Felix Hernandez this season, all I need to see. And while the potential of him doing something special might be the only reason to watch the Mariners in mid-September, I’d rather he’d the save his next masterpiece for a game with consequences at stake.

Hernandez was ushered off the mound during his last start, at Kansas City on Sept. 2, after experiencing pain diagnosed, a few minutes later, as a case of back cramps.

“Whew,” was the consensus response. Cramps on an insufferably hot, humid day in the Midwest? No worries. He’d make his next start during the homestand concluding Wednesday night against the Astros.

But he was scratched from that, too, after the injury was re-diagnosed from back cramps to something more ominous.

“I guess you’d call it maybe a minor oblique strain on the left side, if you had to put a label on it,” manager Eric Wedge said Monday.

A “minor” oblique strain? Sorry, not buying it. Maybe it’s that word – “minor” – which gives me pause. Wedge suffered what the Mariners reported to be a minor stroke on July 24, and we all know how “minor” that turned out to be.

My expertise on oblique injuries is confined to the suspicion there’s a reason oblique, an abdominal muscle, is pronounced “oh, bleak.” Recovery time for a pitcher typically requires six to eight weeks of complete inactivity.

Because Hernandez’s oblique strain is considered minor, he’ll throw the ball off the mound this weekend in St. Louis, where a timetable regarding his next start will be made.

Here’s a suggestion for the Mariners: Tell King Felix he’s loved and admired and has earned every penny of the lucky-for-life, $175 million contract extension he signed in February. Then tell him his work in 2013 is done.

If there’s a playoff berth in the mix, this discussion is tense and complicated. But even the craziest notion of the Mariners contending expired, oh, about two months ago.

If Hernandez is a candidate to win the Cy Young Award for the second time, again, the question of whether to give him three or more starts is layered in nuance.

There hasn’t been any Cy Young talk regarding Hernandez since late July, when he remained a threat to finish as league leader in ERA and strikeouts. Still, the 3.01 ERA is consistent with the portfolio of a future Hall of Famer, as are the strikeouts: He achieved the 200 plateau, for the fifth time in five years, in Kansas City.

What else is there for Hernandez to prove? That he’s a rare talent? That he’s a gritty, feisty athlete who’d rather pitch in pain than sip fruit drinks from a straw in some luxury suite? That he’s the guy you’d most want on the mound in a game that counts?

Check, check and check.

There’s nothing left for Hernandez to prove, aside from this: March 31, 2014, the season opener against the Angels at Anaheim, Calif.

Don’t tempt it, King. Don’t turn a minor oblique strain into a major, long-term injury. Finishing strong works better as a vow than a plan.

Save your magic for the audience it deserves.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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