Tonight Felix Hernandez made his return to Cheney Stadium in a rehab appearance and it, well, it could have gone better. Félix himself was unhappy with the start, saying, “my timing was off, I couldn’t get my rhythm, it felt weird...but pain-free, that’s the most important thing.” He acknowledged that he wasn’t 100%, and was “all over the place,” but was pleased that he felt healthy and his shoulder felt good. Félix also expressed disappointment to be back in Tacoma again. “Two straight years on the DL? That’s not me.” He was blunt about his poor performance, but didn’t seem overly discouraged by it. “It’s the first time in, what, a month and a half? I knew it was going to happen. But it feels good, I just have to work on my mechanics more.”
Félix wasn’t sharp in the first inning, needing 20 pitches to get through four batters,. The good news is his fastball velocity was consistently in the 90s, topping out at 92. The bad news is he consistently missed with it, throwing it low or high. He only threw 11 strikes. Félix’s night got off to a tough start when Reno’s leadoff batter Ildemaro Vargas put up a pesky eight-pitch AB against him before eventually grounding out. When he got hot-hitting Ketel Marte—not a phrase it gives me great pleasure to type—to strike out for the second out of the inning on a beautiful 81 mph changeup, it felt, fleetingly, like it might still be a quick inning. But he walked the next batter, Oswaldo Arcia, on five pitches.
The goal was for Félix to pitch four innings or sixty-five pitches, but soon into the second it became apparent he wouldn’t be hitting that benchmark tonight. Socrates Brito, aka the best name in minor league baseball, hit an infield single, if by infield single you mean “ball that rolls between Félix and Vogelbach.” Then Jack Reinheimer, a former Mariner farmhand, smoked a single past a diving...Ryan Jackson? Because apparently that’s a shortstop for the Rainiers. Félix then walked Zach Borenstein on six pitches. Kristopher Negron then struck out with a mighty hack at a 91 mph fastball, but it took six pitches—or, it took Félix twenty pitches to get to his first out of the inning. Hank Conger then took advantage first-pitch swinging to loop a single into right field, scoring a run and loading the bases for Vargas, who only needed two pitches to send a Félix fastball over the fence for a grand slam. Marte would then ground out and Arcia would strike out, but by the end of the second, Félix had thrown 30 pitches, 17 strikes, and his night was done at 50 pitches total, only 28 strikes.
The other rehabbing Mariner fared better tonight: Mitch Haniger had a hit on a 1-1 pitch that he lobbed softly into right field in the third, again showing his ability to punish a pitcher after having grounded out in the first (he reached anyway on an error, and I want you to know that we did that—all of us, with our love for Mitch Haniger, blew the ball right out of the first baseman’s glove). The Rainiers were able to load the bases for Tyler O’Neill, who made his sixth home run in a Rainiers uniform count, lifting a moonshot grand slam just over the left field wall. But you know what they say: there’s no safe lead in the PCL.
After Félix’s exit, the Rainiers had turned the game over to Casey Lawrence, recently off a superb showing in Seattle where he pitched in relief of a cratering Yovani Gallardo. Lawrence pitched an excellent top of the third, where he only needed six pitches (five strikes) to retire the side. He pitched a less-excellent top of the fourth, in which he gave up a walk, a double, a single, and then a three-run home run to—of course—Ketel Marte to tie the game at nine. Lawrence would rebound in the top of the fifth with two Ks and another 1-2-3 inning, but the damage was done. The Rainiers’ bullpen, which used to be a strong point for the team before Seattle began treating it as Napa Auto Zone, wasn’t able to keep the game tied, and the Rainiers’ offense wasn’t able to add any more runs.
Félix should make another rehab start on Sunday, although Pat Listach couldn’t confirm that after the game. He attributed Felix’s homer to the warm air: “I didn’t think it was going to be a home run...but when it gets hot, the ball flies here.” Haniger, meanwhile, is set to play six innings of right field tomorrow. When asked if he was excited, Haniger replied: "Yeah, definitely. Excited to play right and get back on the field and be in the flow of the game. I feel like I could play a whole game but it's just about not pushing it too far and just going slow because you don't want to have a setback at this point. Just stay very minimal the first couple days and then start ramping it up." There was a point tonight where Haniger held up a little at third instead of trying to score. “He told me before the game he wasn’t going to be trying to steal bases today,” joked Listach, “but I think if he feels good tomorrow, you’ll see a little more aggressive base running. You gotta get your legs back, too. He’s almost back, so let’s make sure we get him back, and get him back healthy.” A-men, Pat Listach. A-freaking-men.