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Originally published April 13, 2012 at 10:28 PM | Page modified April 14, 2012 at 10:19 PM

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King Felix is all right

There's not much room to quibble over an ace's inevitable transition from nasty power pitcher to nasty complete pitcher. Felix Hernandez remains a great pitcher, even if he's lost a little heat off his fastball.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Worry about Felix Hernandez, huh?

I'll pass.

If the Mariners didn't have a sprawling list of concerns, then maybe he'd warrant more scrutiny over his diminishing velocity. But with this team, still in its awkward developmental stages, there's not much room to quibble over an ace's inevitable transition from nasty power pitcher to nasty complete pitcher.

At 26 years old, in his eighth season, Hernandez is the subject of nitpicking because he's only topping out at 93 mph, which is hardly like watching a leaf waft through a gentle breeze. Gone are the days King Felix can throw 96 mph on his 105th pitch to complete a game, and, well, since he doesn't have a bionic body, those days should be gone. It would be alarming if Hernandez didn't hit the mid-90s at all this season, but it's mid-April. Let's wait until the weather is warmer, and pitchers get loose quicker, before passing any definitive judgment.

M's manager Eric Wedge isn't worried.

"No, because the velocity is right there, guys," Wedge said before Friday night's home opener. "I know you're trying to make something, but you're talking about a guy who was still hitting 93 last time, and that's pretty much what he is. I mean, he's a low-to-mid 90s guy that pitches.

"Can he reach back and get more if he wants to? Sure. But he pitches. He uses all five or six of his pitches, throws them where he wants to and when he wants to, which is as important as anything for him. I don't have any worries with regard to that."

On opening night at Safeco Field, Hernandez looked fine, even though he was facing Oakland for the third time in the Mariners' first nine games. He wasn't spectacular, but he grinded through a difficult time during the third, fourth and fifth innings and gave the Mariners a chance to win. And, as usual, his offensively challenged ballclub made him a hard-luck loser as the A's claimed a 4-0 victory. But Hernandez was solid, especially on an off night: seven innings, seven hits, two runs allowed, six strikeouts, three walks.

Hernandez allowed his only two runs during the third inning, and the trouble began because he jammed Daric Barton and broke his bat, but the ball found its way into right field. Later, Cliff Pennington crushed a pitch off the center-field wall to score Barton. But the second run Hernandez allowed came after left fielder Chone Figgins bobbled the ball on a Coco Crisp single. Figgins wasn't given an error, but he should have been because Pennington was content to stay on third base until Figgins' mishap.

Fiddling with an inconsistent sinker on this night, Hernandez did the best he could. It should've been enough to win. But the Mariners managed only three hits as Bartolo Colon and some stellar Oakland defense shut them down.

"The sinker was OK today," Hernandez said, which is about the closest he ever comes to a negative thought. "Sometimes, it was not moving."

Worry about King Felix?

Not yet.

Maybe there would be room for fret if the Mariners offense wasn't still a sore spot. Maybe there would be room if the bullpen wasn't an issue. Maybe there would be room if Hector Noesi was a steadier No. 3 starter, or if Jesus Montero was driving the ball, or if Justin Smoak was off to a better start.

I could go on, but the point has been made. The M's are a team so desperate for improvement that they bumped their future Hall of Fame leadoff hitter to third in the batting order and put a player who hit .188 last season in the leadoff spot, all because Wedge believes it will somehow make his futile offense better. And you know what? He's probably right. And that explains how tangled up the Mariners are.

Meanwhile, Hernandez remains the team's franchise player and its greatest hope, even though he has seemingly lost a little heat. But velocity isn't all that makes him great. It's his variety of pitches and his movement. King Felix throws six pitches — a two-seam fastball, four-seamer, sinker, changeup, slider and curve — and they're all nasty. He's ridiculously gifted, and you still see that. If anything, the fact that he is among the game's best without having the hardest fastball shows you how much he has evolved.

Now, if only the rest of the team can evolve.

"We're going to be good, man," Hernandez said, ever hopeful. "It's only (nine) games. These guys are going to hit."

There are too many concerns greater than King Felix. So until he complains of discomfort, don't assume he's injured. And until teams consistently rock him, don't assume he has lost anything.

Worry about Hernandez?

Don't waste your time.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer

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