OAKLAND - The Seattle Mariners had scored seven runs in his 11 losses before Felix Hernandez hit the wall last year.
En route to an improbable American League Cy Young Award, Hernandez faced the Blue Jays in Toronto on Sept. 23. He went eight innings, allowed two hits and one run and lost, 1-0.
“When I lost 1-0, that was the low point,” Hernandez said. “Man, that hurt.”
As he sat quietly at his cubicle after that loss, head down, a rare parade of sorts began.
“Every one of my teammates came by my locker,” Hernandez said. “They shook my hand, they said, ‘All you can do is your best.’ They felt worse than I did. I know they were trying.
“I love my teammates. I love them like family.”
That’s not a statement he makes lightly. In a life now 24 years long, Hernandez has most everything he or anyone
he has ever known has dreamed of – fame, success, wealth, babies, a new car ...
What, he is asked, is the best part of being him?
“My family,” he said. “My kids, that’s who I do everything for, all the hard work, it’s for them. They’re my life. If I come home after a bad game, it’s great with them.
“My daughter Mia told people in Venezuela: ‘My daddy won the Cy Young Award.’ ”
Hernandez throws back his head and laughs, delighted by the memory.
Since age 18, he has been the pitcher his franchise had waited for, a home-grown ace with the stuff and the drive to learn if it would help make him better. Last season, he was named the best pitcher in his league.
A Cy Young Award. Every pitcher’s dream.
“Winning the Cy Young . . . it’s not enough to win it once,” Hernandez said. “I want to prove it wasn’t a lucky year, that I can do it again.”
He insists he can and will improve. How much better can he get?
“I talked to Randy Johnson this spring,” Hernandez said. “He told me, ‘You never know when you’ll have your best year.’
“Last year is in the past already. I have to be better today, my first day, the first month. I have to be better all season.”
On a Mariners team not hugely different than the one that lost 101 games last year, Felix Hernandez has thrown down a personal gauntlet.
“I want to win,” he said. “Man, I love to win. I love it.”
Pitching is the biggest part of the game – everyone says so. Which is why a pitcher such as Hernandez, who dominated major league hitters last season, should have won more than 13 games, and lost fewer than 12.
“He’s scary good,” said Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton, who was scary good himself in 2011, winning the AL Most Valuable Player award. “You can’t sit on any pitch because if you guess wrong you’re just helpless up there.”
Fastball, changeup, slider, curve, then whatever he wants to call his sinker.
“It explodes down,” Mariners catcher Adam Moore said. “When Felix is on, he’s not just hard to hit, he can be tough to catch. His ball moves late, and it moves hard.”
His pitches weren’t quite that good when the Mariners’ scouts first saw him 10 years ago at age 14. What made him stand out? He was playing against 16- and 18-year-olds and having his way.
On July 4, 2002, Seattle director of international operations Bob Engle signed Felix as a non-drafted free agent. Hernandez was 16, and $710,000 wasn’t the high bid. Three other teams, including the New York Yankees, courted him.
The Atlanta Braves offered more. Hernandez had known Mariners scouts better. He came to Seattle.
“I’ve always loved this city, the people here,” Hernandez said. “People ask if I want to leave, like they don’t believe me. I wanted to stay here. That’s why I signed my last contract.”
General manager Jack Zduriencik recognized what the team had in Hernandez last year, and got him under contract through the 2014 season.
“If he’s not the best pitcher in our league, he’s in the argument,” former Mariner manager Don Wakamatsu said. “The way he competes, the way he battles, may be as impressive as what he throws.”
Since arriving in the big leagues in 2005, Hernandez has played for managers Mike Hargrove, John McLaren, Jim Riggleman, Wakamatsu, Daren Brown and, now, Eric Wedge.
When he accepted the Cy Young last fall, he joked about the turnover. Felix said he wanted to thank all his pitching coaches, adding “and there have been a lot of them.”
Pitching coaches Bryan Price, Rafael Chaves, Mel Stottlemyre, Rick Adair and Carl Willis each have worked with Hernandez in the majors.
From each, he insists, he learned something that has made him the pitcher he is.
There were others, including the man he still considers his “idol,” former Mariner Freddy Garcia. A fellow Venezuelan, Garcia helped Felix make the transition from minor-league hopeful to big-league pitcher.
For the past five seasons, Hernandez has worn the uniform number Garcia had in Seattle.
“After I won the Cy Young Award, Freddy called and just said, ‘Congratulations, kid.’ That’s what he calls me: Kid,” Hernandez said. “I got calls from everyone that week; old friends, coaches, teammates – I even got a call from one of my school teachers.”
He remembers more.
“When I won it, my dad was crying. Everybody in the family was crying, and I was crying, too,” he said.
That fact doesn’t embarrass Hernandez.
“I’ve cried quite a few times in my life. On opening day in 2007, my mother was in the stands to watch me pitch in the big leagues for the first time. I cried then,” he said.
He’s already worried about the Mariners’ home opener in Safeco Field next week. Before that game, the team will hand him his Cy Young Award in front of what likely will be a sold-out crowd.
“I don’t know how I’ll react, but I’m nervous thinking about it,” Hernandez said. “Those fans were with me from the very beginning of my career.
“When I was 19, I was pretty good. My second year, I started, like, 0-6. That was not easy. I had to make a lot of adjustments, but the fans were patient. Now, I know how to pitch.”
The biggest difference? Hernandez laughed.
“With all I’ve learned, I usually go with whatever the catcher calls,” he said. “When I have everything working, you can’t beat me. Call any pitch; I think I can beat you with it. That’s how I feel.”
It seems absurd that, at his young age, Hernandez could be the team leader. His smile is still boyish, his enthusiasm for life and baseball are often openly displayed.
So is his work ethic.
“He’s a joy to be around. He’s a delight,” Wedge said. “Felix is a positive-energy guy; great attitude, great worker, really a leader with the way he goes about his business and the pride he takes with every pitch he throws.
“Really, you have to take a great deal of pride in being at the big-league level and knowing he has to do more than just show up to win. He knows that. He loves the work, and other players watch the way he works, not just the way he plays.”
Rookie Michael Pineda is a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher from the Dominican Republic, and has found a tutor in Hernandez – who is just 2 years his senior.
“He’s done a really good job of explaining things to me about the game. He tells me that I have to work hard on the field, but that I have to do the same off the field, like perfecting my grasp of the English language,” Pineda said. “We talk a lot, and I can ask him anything.”
Hernandez has become a part of the community, volunteering to be a spokesman for the Seattle King County Humane Society. Felix has two dogs, King and Oreo, and his philosophy in supporting the Humane Society was simple.
“Anything for the puppies,” he said.
“I signed to stay here five years, and when that contract is up, I hope they offer me another one,” Hernandez said. “I want to stay here my whole career. That would be wonderful.”
“I want to win another Cy Young Award. I want to go to another All-Star Game. I want to win 20 games,” he said, then flashed the smile again. “Most of all, I want to win a World Series here.
“Last year was hard on everyone. Baseball is weird. My teammates tried to score runs for me, it just didn’t happen. This year, it might be the opposite. Every year, there’s a surprise team in baseball. Why not us?”