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Originally published March 30, 2014 at 8:17 PM | Page modified March 30, 2014 at 9:45 PM

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Felix Hernandez set for 7th opening-day start

It’s still special to Felix Hernandez. Even after all these years, the thrill of making the start on opening day hasn’t lost its meaning to the Mariners ace.


Seattle Times staff reporter

Monday

Mariners @ L.A. Angels, 7:05 p.m., ROOT

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — It’s still special to Felix Hernandez. Even after all these years, the thrill of making the start on opening day hasn’t lost its meaning to the Mariners ace.

“For sure, it’s the start of the new season,” he said. “It’s always fun. It’s the start of a new season. It’s on national TV. So you gotta do good.”

When Hernandez steps to the mound Monday night at Angels Stadium and throws that first pitch for the Mariners, it will be the seventh time he’s done so in his career. It will set a club record, surpassing the record he shared with Randy Johnson of six opening-day starts. It’s definitely an accomplishment and a tribute to his consistent success.

“Not bad, not bad,” he said. “He’s (Johnson) a great pitcher. He’s going to be a Hall of Famer. So that’s pretty good company to be in.”

In his six opening-day starts, Hernandez is 4-0 with 1.33 earned-run average with 41 strikeouts in 471 / 3 innings pitched.

The fact that Hernandez will be making his seventh opening-day start isn’t surprising. He’s a No. 1 starter. But there wasn’t always a guarantee that he’d be making them with the Mariners. For years, there was a lingering fear he’d end up with another team. But Hernandez crushed that possibility by signing a $175 million, seven-year contract before last season.

“They always said that,” he said of the speculation. “But I’m happy here. I always said I was happy here.”

Realistically, this should be Hernandez’s eighth consecutive opening-day start. But in 2008, then-manager John McLaren decided to have Erik Bedard start opening day. It was a mistake and something that irked Hernandez, though he was professional enough to never admit it publicly.

That isn’t likely to happen again.

Hernandez flashed a wide smile when asked how he’s different from that first opening-day start in 2007 against the A’s at Safeco Field.

“I was a little nino,” he said. “I was just a little kid. I’m more mature, more experienced.”

Now he’s a veteran, the face of the franchise and a team leader. He understands his role and embraces it. It has impressed new manager Lloyd McClendon.

“There was a lot I didn’t know about him,” McClendon said. “Obviously, I knew he was a great pitcher. But he has a tremendous passion and a tremendous desire to win. I think he’s very grateful with where we are and where we are going. I think he can see the picture a little clearer now.”

While Hernandez is a veteran of opening-day starts, his catcher won’t be. This will be Mike Zunino’s first opening-day start. He was more than a little excited.

“It’s extremely exciting,” Zunino said. “You hear all the talk about opening-day excitement and anticipation. It’s a huge deal. Obviously, there is no one you want on the mound more than Felix.”

Hart not ready for everyday play

McClendon has his opening-day lineup planned out but wouldn’t share it. One person who won’t be on it is designated hitter Corey Hart. McClendon admitted Hart isn’t ready to be an everyday player because of the time missed this spring training with nagging injuries.

“I doubt if Corey is an everyday (player) right off the start,” McClendon said. “There’s still some building we have to do with him. You have to look forward and look ahead. He won’t play tomorrow.”

But Hart will still be playing, particularly if there is a left-handed starter on the mound. The Mariners see four lefties in their first seven games.

“We’ve got two lefties the next two days so he’ll be in the lineup the next two days. You look at the Oakland series, and they have two lefties,” McClendon said. “So I have to be careful how much I push him early. He understands it. With him, I want to continue to build. Like I said, if I can get 145 to 150 games out of him this year, I’d be happy.”

Notes

Taijuan Walker started a minor-league game Sunday in Arizona. “He threw four innings and threw well,” McClendon said.

Walker threw 55 pitches in the game and 17 more in the bullpen. His fastball was right around 93 to 95 mph, according to McClendon.

The plan is for Walker to start Friday for Class A High Desert in the California League.

Hisashi Iwakuma is with the team and is continuing his throwing program. It’s progressing. “I would suspect he will be back on the mound in maybe 10 days,” McClendon said. “He’s out to 60 feet. He’ll stretch it out to 90 feet and then 120 feet.”

Starting lineups
Projected starters for Monday night’s season opener:
MarinersAngels
1. CF Abraham Almonte1. RF Kole Calhoun
2. SS Brad Miller2. CF Mike Trout
3. 2B Robinson Cano3. 1B Albert Pujols
4. 1B Justin Smoak4. LF Josh Hamilton
5. 3B Kyle Seager5. 3B David Freese
6. DH Logan Morrison6. DH Raul Ibanez
7. RF Michael Saunders7. 2B Howie Kendrick
8. LF Dustin Ackley8. C Chris Iannetta
9. C Mike Zunino9. SS Erick Aybar
Pitcher: Felix HernandezPitcher: Jered Weaver

Ryan Divish: 206-464-2373 or rdivish@seattletimes.com. On Twitter: @RyanDivish



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