PEORIA, Ariz. -- Felix Hernandez exclaimed "I'm back!" as he wrapped up a conversation with reporters following Monday's encouraging outing in a Triple-A game against the San Diego Padres.
Hernandez pitched three innings, throwing 38 pitches with 27 strikes. He allowed three hits, including a triple off the right field wall, one run and struck out five in his first outing since taking a line drive off his forearm on Feb. 26.
"I was finally on the mound, yes!" Hernandez said. "I was a little scared by the comebacker, but everything else was fine.
"That’s who I am. I’m going to go out there and compete. But it felt really good. Everything was in place. Good curve ball, good changeup, command. It was everything in control, so it was good."
Hernandez struck out two in the first inning and three in the third inning to conclude his outing. Peter Van Gansen roped a line drive off the top of the wall in right field for the hardest hit ball off Hernandez. He also allowed a looping single to right field and a weakly hit ground ball that found its way into right past the second baseman.
"Couldn't have gone better," Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said as the outing concluded on a field on the Padres side of the Peoria Sports Complex
Added manager Scott Servais, "I thought Felix threw the ball great. I was really happy with what I saw. I thought the life on his pitches, the execution of his pitches, the changeup was good, he worked on some other things with his delivery that I thought looked excellent. So it was about as good as you could imagine it being with his first time out there in quite awhile."
Hernandez has tweaked his delivery to include a bit of a pause during his windup. It appears to be paying dividends.
"He looked great. As under control, as balanced, as effortless as I've seen him in quite some time," Mike Zunino said, who caught Hernandez in the game. "He knows it too. He knows when he can go back and reach more, but I think he's truly pitching. He's working the ball back and forth, mixing all four of his pitches and I think if he just carries this into the season, he's going to have a great year."
Hernandez is scheduled to pitch Saturday against the Chicago Cubs in Peoria. He said he's hoping to go five or six innings in his next time out. It would also put him on track to start Opening Day against the Cleveland Indians on March 29.
"if he is able to make the Opening Day start, we’re not looking at him to go out and throw 100 pitches," Servais said. "If we can get 75-80 pitches out of him and five really good innings and turn it over to the bullpen, we’ll see. We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. But that’s kind of the plan looking into this thing because he’s not going to be ready to go out and throw 100 pitches. We have to be smart."
James Paxton went six innings and threw 82 pitches in a Double-A game on an adjacent field. He allowed one run on three hits with two walks and nine strikeouts.
"Everything felt good," Paxton said. "I moved the ball around pretty well. The curve ball was good again, the cutter was better this time out than last time, so making progress there. Threw a couple of good changeups. It was a step in the right direction again so keep on going here."
Paxton would be the other prime candidate to make the Opening Day start should Hernandez not get the ball. Paxton said he's pitching one more more time before spring training concludes, but said he'd leave it to Servais to when, and where, that will be.
If Paxton makes the Sunday start against San Diego in the final game from Peoria, it would seem to indicate Hernandez will make the Opening Day start. However, Paxton could pitch in a minor league game on Saturday as well to preserve the option for Servais into next week and see how Hernandez progresses in his start against the Cubs.
"It’ll probably be a little bigger challenge facing the Cubs. That’ll be a good test for him," Servais said. "If he struggles to get his pitch count up in that game, we’ll readjust and go from there."
Photo Credit: Mariners starter Felix Hernandez throws three innings in a Triple-A game against the Padres. It was his first outing since taking a liner off his pitching arm on Feb. 26. (photo by Curtis Crabtree / Sports Radio 950 KJR)
-- Ichiro Suzuki has 11 total plate appearances in multiple minor league games as he works his way back from a sore calf.
Suzuki went 3-for-10 with a walk and five strikeouts. All three hits were singles, including a slap single to left field off Padres ace Clayton Richard in the same game Felix Hernandez started on the Triple-A field.
Suzuki was one of a handful of veterans on track to play Wednesday night against the Milwaukee Brewers. However, manager Scott Servais was less certain of Suzuki's involvement after the games on Monday.
"I will talk to him when he gets back over here today," Servais said. "I want to make sure he's 100 percent before he goes out there. He needs to get out there and run around in the outfield and do something here too. Hopefully Wednesday, if not Wednesday, we’ll keep our fingers crossed for Thursday on Ichiro.
-- Hisashi Iwakuma threw 10 pitches off the slope of a mound on Monday for the first time this spring. Iwakuma has shoulder surgery this offseason as problems with his arm plagued him throughout the 2017 season.
"I felt great," Iwakuma said through a translator. "Overall, I wasn’t nervous about anything. I felt pretty good throwing off the slope. I didn't have to worry about shoulder in general. That’s always a good sign. I felt great. Better than I was expecting."
Iwakuma won't be ready to pitch in a major league game until late May at the earliest. However, he is making solid progress in his recovery and will throw a bullpen session on Sunday before the team breaks camp.
"My first bullpen is scheduled on the 25th so I'm getting the prepared for that," Iwakuma said. "I'm just getting the feel of the mound and the slope and the timing with my lower body and upper body.
"I think everything is smooth so far. I haven't had any setbacks yet, knock on wood. So far everything is good, thanks to our training."
-- Rob Whalen was optioned to Triple-A on Monday, a day after allowing eight earned runs in a start against the Cleveland Indians.
Servais said the move was coming regarding of Whalen's performance on Sunday.
"It was on the docket for him to be sent out and keep him going in the right direction. Really good story with an outstanding spring training for him," Servais said. "... The previous outings had been very good. He's certainly got something to feel good about and build on. We are going to need him. He will help us at some point this year."
Photo Credit: Ichiro Suzuki slaps a single to right field against Clayton Richard in a Triple-A game against the San Diego Padres in Peoria, Ariz. (photo by Curtis Crabtree / Sports Radio 950 KJR)