Felix Hernandez said it himself: If he pitches like he did Saturday, he’ll be in the Braves’ rotation.
Hernandez started the Braves’ first spring training game, holding the Orioles hitless over two innings in an eventual 5-0 win. He threw 30 pitches across the two frames, striking out a pair and walking one.
It was a small but encouraging step for Hernandez, who’s trying to show he has more left in the tank after a difficult trio of seasons. The former Cy Young winner is on a $1 million, non-guaranteed deal, trying to earn a role on the contending Braves.
“Physically, I feel 100 percent healthy,” Hernandez said. “If I keep doing what I did today, I’m going to be in that (rotation) spot.”
While only 33, Hernandez has amassed over 2,700 innings. His workhorse days caught up to him as injuries derailed him in recent seasons. He started 16 games in 2017 and only 15 last season, which marked his fewest starts since his first season (12, 2005). His 71-2/3 innings in 2019 were the fewest in his career.
The tail-off has led many to believe his possible Hall of Fame career is nearing its end. Hernandez disagrees: He said he feels the best he’s had in a couple years. He’s lighter and faster. Mentally, he’s refreshed.
“The combination of everything,” he said. “My command; body-wise, my legs feel really good, shoulders (feel healthy).”
His first performance backed that up. Hernandez exhibited sound fastball control and his breaking pitches looked crisp, especially in striking out Anthony Santander and Mason Williams.
Catcher Tyler Flowers had explained how impressed he was with Hernandez earlier in the week. His analysis proved accurate in start No. 1.
“I know Felix feels healthy,” Flowers said. “He feels strong. I caught one of his bullpens, and he seemed healthy and strong. Very good command, a little better off-speed than I even thought he had. So I was pretty excited and encouraged seeing that.”
Saturday went without much adversity. It was smooth sailing other than a walk to Chance Sisco and a wild pitch. Hernandez acknowledged he needs to clean up mechanically while pitching out of the stretch, but otherwise he was satisfied with the showing.
“It was good,” manager Brian Snitker said. “The tempo, the aggressiveness, using his assortment, it was pretty good. Pretty good to watch. I liked the upbeat aggressiveness he was pitching with. That was a really good start for him, first time out and all.”
Now, it isn’t as if Hernandez was navigating a murderer’s row: He faced Austin Hays, Santander, Renato Nunez, Ryan Mountcastle, Sisco, Pat Valaika and Williams – not exactly a list of well-known commodities. The lowly Orioles, exhibition or regulars, aren’t considered a monumental task.
But this time of year is more about the process than the results. Hernandez looked confident, comfortable and in command. As he was quick to say, if he replicates similar across the next few weeks, his 16th season will begin with the Braves.
“Fastball came out pretty good,” Hernandez said. “I threw some good (off-speed pitches). It looks pretty good. The change-up, too. … Having that command of all my pitches this early, that’s good.”
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