For the first 10 years of his career, Felix Hernandez captivated the city of Seattle and energized crowds at Safeco Field with unhittable fastballs and back-wrenching splits. He was a pitching rock star, hanging K's on the outfield fence, demoralizing opposing lineups and turning every fifth day into appointment viewing.
The one caveat: None of those appointments came in October, on the stage he craved the most.
Hernandez is 32 years old now and climbing the ranks of a list he wants desperately to escape. When he takes the mound against the Kansas City Royals on Saturday, it will be the 393rd start of his career without a postseason appearance. Among the six pitchers ahead of him: Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins, Jim Bunning and Ted Lyons.
If King Felix is going to write a different, more fulfilling, ending this season, it will come as part of a group effort.
As the Mariners continue to push Houston in the American League West, Hernandez is doing his part by pitching to contact, weaving his way through lineups and outsmarting hitters rather than humiliating them. It's a state of affairs he never contemplated in 2005, when he arrived from Triple-A Tacoma and replaced Aaron Sele in the rotation in August. Hernandez was 19 years old when he threw his first big league pitch, a 97 mph heater to Tigers outfielder Shannon Stewart, and a sign with the letters "K-I-N-G" hung from the concourse in left-center field.
"You know age [will be a factor], and you're going to throw a lot of innings," Hernandez said. "Your velocity is going to go down, and you have to make adjustments. But I wasn't thinking like that back in the day. When you're throwing your fastball 96 or 97, you're not worrying about missing location. Now it's about location and mixing all your pitches. I'm a little different now. I'm 91-92, but I have a lot of weapons to go with it."
The Mariners, in search of their first playoff berth since 2001, are 52-31 with a rotation that's bucking the trend toward turbocharged heaters. According to FanGraphs, Seattle's starters rank 24th in the majors with a 91.2 mph average fastball velocity. James Paxton is seventh among qualifying starters at 95.5 mph, and Hernandez ranks 83rd at 89.2 mph.
Hernandez has addressed his limitations head-on, just as CC Sabathia adapted to age and a pokier fastball by strapping on a knee brace and adding a cutter to his repertoire. Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto, a student of baseball history, digs deeper into the archives and cites the example of Frank Tanana, who reinvented himself as a soft-tosser after arm problems and won 240 games over 21 big league seasons.
"Felix's decade of dominance matches up favorably with the great pitchers of all time in that stretch," Dipoto said. "But he started at such a young age, and there were so many innings that transpired over that 10-year stretch, it took its toll. To expect any pitcher to maintain the way a Justin Verlander has -- or the 42-year-old version of Nolan Ryan back in the day -- that's very uncommon. It's a hard thing to do when you're used to being one version of yourself. Felix is doing a great job of finding his new self."
Hernandez's old self eventually succumbed to the workload. He led the majors with 2,178 innings from 2006 to 2015 and ranked second to Dan Haren in starts in that span. From 2009 to 2012, he threw 14,392 pitches -- second only to Verlander among MLB starters.
Opposing hitters line up with personal tales of despair vs. vintage King Felix. When Albert Pujols was closing in on 3,000 hits earlier this season, he singled out Hernandez as his biggest career nemesis.
"I don't think it's just me," Pujols told ESPN.com in spring training. "He gives a hard time to the whole league."
Outfielder Denard Span was a career .118 (3-for-26) against Hernandez before coming to Seattle from Tampa Bay by trade in May. He was particularly struck by Hernandez's ability to reach back and summon something extra when surrounded by traffic on the bases.
"When guys got in scoring position, he'd turn into a totally different pitcher," Span said. "It was almost like he would get pissed off when somebody hit a double off him. I remember one at-bat, the 9-hole hitter hit a double off him, and I was hitting leadoff, and he took it out on me. It got nasty as hell."
Hernandez's gun readings declined gradually through the years because of attrition and injuries. In 2016, he missed almost two months with a calf strain. Last year, it was shoulder bursitis. In spring training, he suffered a scare and a setback when he took a line drive from the Cubs' Victor Caratini off the right elbow.
After a rough April and a miserable May, Hernandez is gradually finding his comfort zone. He's 2-2 with a 3.41 ERA and a 25-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in June, and settling in with a revamped pitch mix. He's throwing his fastball a career-low 42 percent of the time and relying on his curveball and changeup more than half the time.
"It's still better than 75 percent of the guys in the big leagues right now," said Mariners starter Wade LeBlanc. "It's just not what Felix has had before. I think everybody looks at it and says, 'Felix has lost it.' But at the same time, he's building up other aspects of his game now.
"People need to understand it's not an easy thing to do in the offseason, much less midseason, and that's what he's doing. The last couple of years, it's been a grind for him to figure out where his stuff can succeed. But as he gets more comfortable with it, you see it getting crisper. He's throwing with conviction. He's throwing aggressively, and there's confidence behind it. That's making it play better."
"When guys got in scoring position, he'd turn into a totally different pitcher. It was almost like he would get pissed off when somebody hit a double off him. I remember one at-bat, the 9-hole hitter hit a double off him, and I was hitting leadoff, and he took it out on me. It got nasty as hell."Denard Span on facing Felix Hernandez
Even if Hernandez and his fellow starters continue to pitch well, Dipoto will be monitoring the trade market for potential upgrades and depth pieces. If Paxton and Marco Gonzales continue at their current pace, they'll blow past their season-high innings totals down the stretch. The Mariners are hoping to get Erasmo Ramirez back from a lat injury after the All-Star Game, but they'll continue to lean hard on Paxton, Gonzales, Hernandez, Mike Leake and LeBlanc.
The Mariners are in a commanding wild-card position with a seven-game lead over Oakland, but that doesn't mean Hernandez is assured of an October start. Under the most likely scenario, Seattle would start Paxton in a wild-card game against Chris Sale at Fenway or Luis Severino at Yankee Stadium. The prospect of an October one-and-done is very real.
But that's a concern for another day. Hernandez seems invigorated pitching for a Seattle team that's long on camaraderie and raising the spirits of a playoff-deprived fan base. Long before he laid the foundation for a Cooperstown run, he was just a happy-go-lucky phenom hanging on the advice of Jamie Moyer, Eddie Guardado and the other Seattle veterans. Now he's the veteran with a year and three months left on a $175 million contract extension, but he'll never be confused for a clubhouse diva.
"He knows he's Felix Hernandez," LeBlanc said. "He knows he's 'The King,' but he doesn't treat other people like he knows it. It's refreshing."
For years, Hernandez carried the banner for a parade of third- and fourth-place teams in Seattle. Now his teammates are forced to make more plays behind him as he navigates lineups in a slightly diminished state. He is living proof that radar gun readings alone can't buy happiness.
"I love the game of baseball, and I love to be out there and compete," King Felix said. "We're trying to play for the playoffs, and this is the best team we've had here in a long time. Right now, I'm just living my dream."