Des­per­ately miss­ing King Felix

Mariners’ best chance at res­cu­ing sea­son is quick re­turn by its ace

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In the orig­i­nal Star Wars, Princess Leia’s holo­gram ut­tered a line that’s be­come fa­mous in movie lore: “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”

Re­place “Obi-Wan Kenobi” with “Felix Her­nan­dez” and you’ve got the Seat­tle Mariners’ predica­ment.

The Mariners’ once-promis­ing sea­son is dan­ger of slip­ping away, and the num­bers sug­gest Seat­tle’s best chance at res­cu­ing its flag­ging cam­paign is a quick re­turn from its ace pitcher.

Her­nan­dez hasn’t pitched since May 27, when he sur­ren­dered six runs in six in­nings in a 7-2 loss to the Min­nesota Twins. Five days later he went on the dis­abled list with a strained right calf mus­cle, and he re­mains on the DL to this day.

Prior to that the Mariners were the hottest team in base­ball. Be­tween April 13 and May 25 Seat­tle was 26-12, vault­ing the Mariners into first place in the Amer­i­can League West. Op­ti­mism was fi­nally be­gin­ning to break through in a city that’s learned to treat the Mariners with a healthy dose of skep­ti­cism, and vi­sions of end­ing a 14-year play­off drought were ma­te­ri­al­iz­ing on the hori­zon.

But just as the Mariners were about to as­cend to the peak, they lost their bal­ance and tum­bled off a cliff.

Her­nan­dez’s loss on May 27 be­gan an abrupt about face as some­one shoved the

siz­zling Mariners into the deep freezer. From May 27 to June 23, Seat­tle’s record was 8-19. The Mariners went from play­ing at a lofty .684 win­ning per­cent­age dur­ing the pre­vi­ous pe­riod to plum­met­ing to a piti­ful .296. As a re­sult, Seat­tle sat at 39-38 prior to Wed­nes­day’s game and was just try­ing to tread wa­ter in the AL wild card race.

And it’s hard not to see Her­nan­dez’s ab­sence as the main cat­a­lyst in the fall.

In truth, Her­nan­dez wasn’t hav­ing a vin­tage King Felix sea­son. Sure, his num­bers look good on the sur­face as his 2.86 ERA is lower than his ca­reer mark. But a closer ex­am­i­na­tion shows wor­ry­ing signs.

His strike­out rate is down (a ca­reer low 7.6 per nine in­nings), his walk rate is up (a ca­reer high 3.7 per nine in­nings), and his fast­ball ve­loc­ity is de­clin­ing at an alarm­ing rate (90.1 mph, down two mph from last sea­son and more than six mph from his peak). This sea­son the Mariners are no bet­ter when Her­nan­dez is on the mound (5-5 in his starts) than when he’s off it (34-33).

But Felix is more than just a pitcher to the Mariners. He’s a pres­ence, and his ab­sence is hav­ing an ad­verse ef­fect on Seat­tle’s pitch­ing staff.

Look­ing at the dif­fer­ence in the Mariners’ stats be­tween their 26-12 stretch and their 8-19 stretch, it’s all about the pitch­ing. Seat­tle’s of­fen­sive num­bers are nearly iden­ti­cal dur­ing those pe­ri­ods. The Mariners slashed .265/.334/.441 for a .775 OPS dur­ing the win­ning stretch and .268/.326/.452 for a .778 OPS dur­ing the los­ing stretch. The team’s run out­put dropped just a smidgen from 5.1 per game to 5.0.

But the pitch­ing staff is a com­pletely dif­fer­ent story. The Mariners went from hav­ing a 2.97 ERA and al­low­ing 3.4 runs per game dur­ing the good times, to hav­ing a 4.83 ERA and al­low­ing 5.3 runs per game dur­ing the bad.

The pitch­ing woes showed no dis­crim­i­na­tion as both the ro­ta­tion and the bullpen were af­flicted. Among the starters, Wade Mi­ley, Nathan Karns and Tai­juan Walker saw their com­bined ERA in­crease from 2.89 to 6.06 and their com­bined WHIP bal­loon from 1.16 to 1.64, and the Mariners’ went from go­ing 17-6 in their starts to 4-10.

In the bullpen Nick Vin­cent, Mike Mont­gomery and Vi­dal Nuno, the only re­liev­ers other than closer Steve Cishek who were avail­able through­out those pe­ri­ods, went from be­ing lights out (1.08 com­bined ERA, 0.78 com­bined WHIP) to be­ing lit up (4.18 com­bined ERA, 1.48 com­bined WHIP).

All of which led to an ugly stretch that in­cluded los­ing streaks of six and four games, as well as get­ting swept at home by the lowly Min­nesota Twins, who have the worst record in base­ball.

Those don’t hap­pen if Her­nan­dez is around, even if he’s less than his dom­i­nant self. One thing Her­nan­dez has shown the past cou­ple sea­sons is he knows how to ad­just to his de­clin­ing stuff. And one thing he’s al­ways had is a ace men­tal­ity. One of the jobs of an ace pitcher is to make sure the los­ing boul­der doesn’t gain too much mo­men­tum as it starts rolling down the hill. There’s no doubt Her­nan­dez’s willpower alone would have pre­vented things from get­ting as bad as they did.

There was some good news re­gard­ing Her­nan­dez ear­lier this week. On Tues­day he threw about 25 pitches dur­ing a bullpen ses­sion, and Mariners man­ager Scott Ser­vais didn’t rule out the pos­si­bil­ity Her­nan­dez could re­turn to the ro­ta­tion prior to the All-Star break, which be­gins July 11. That re­turn can’t hap­pen fast enough for Seat­tle.

So Felix, please hurry back. The Mariners des­per­ately need you. Not just for your arm, but for your pres­ence.

For more on the Seat­tle sports scene, fol­low Nick Pat­ter­son on Twit­ter at @Nick­HPat­ter­son.

ELAINE THOMP­SON / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Mariners pitcher Felix Her­nan­dez has not pitched since May 27 and is not ex­pected to re­turn un­til af­ter the All-Star break.

NICK PAT­TER­SON

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