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Thursday, August 4, 2005 - Page updated at 10:58 AM

Mariners

Phenom Felix debuts today

Seattle Times staff reporter

Felix Hernandez, the 19-year-old considered one of the top prospects in major-league baseball, gets his first start today.

DETROIT — As a card-carrying member of one of the smallest clubs in baseball, Todd Van Poppel has some advice for the latest 19-year-old pitcher to start a major-league baseball game.

To Felix Hernandez: Enjoy it. Embrace it. And welcome to the club.

Membership includes hype and expectation and your own personal spotlight. It guarantees an early start to your big-league career, but certainly not success. Prospective members need only put their baby faces in abnormal places — namely a pitching mound in a major-league stadium, with the world of sports analyzing and scrutinizing every pitch.

Hernandez will start the series finale against the Tigers today. After the first pitch, he will join the exclusive company of 19-year-old pitchers who made their first major-league start long before they were legally old enough to drink.

"He's going to create a memory with that first start," Van Poppel said. "I'd tell him to go out with an open mind. Don't press too hard. Have fun.

"He's got his whole career in front of him. Now go out and make a memory."

Mariners gameday


Today: Seattle at Detroit, 10:05 a.m., KOMO (1000 AM)

Starting pitchers: M's Felix Hernandez (pitching debut) vs. Sean Douglass (3-1, 3.86)

Game updates: Check out our desktop scoreboard during the game at www.seattletimes.com

That's what today is here for — memories to be made in Motown. For Hernandez, the top pitching prospect in baseball. For the Mariners, an organization that could use some good news. And for the fans, who haven't been this excited about a debut since ...

"The only thing that probably rivals it would be when [Ken] Griffey [Jr.] was running out to play center field on opening day in 1989," pitching coach Bryan Price said. "The anticipation has been huge ever since those notes started coming out of single-A ball a couple years ago and people started to notice how special a talent Felix is."

So maybe it won't be easy to just show up, make some history and have some fun. Maybe Hernandez will feel like third baseman Adrian Beltre did in his major-league debut, also at age 19.

The Los Angeles Dodgers welcomed Beltre in front of 50,000-plus, and he had never played before more than 6,000 people.

"I was a little nervous," Beltre said, "and I wasn't even the pitcher."

The Mariners believe Hernandez is ready now. Hernandez concurs. They point to the fury he calls a fastball, to the curve that snaps like fingers, to the improving changeup, sinking fastball and soon-to-be-debuted slider that give Hernandez a repertoire few 19-year-olds possess. Asked if he was ready in spring training, Hernandez smiled.

"Yep," he said.

Price laughs when asked why the Mariners believe Hernandez is ready now. There's really no easy way to answer it, no way to spin it delicately. Because Hernandez has handled himself with maturity, the rest is simple.

"We don't have anybody in our organization with that kind of stuff," Price said.

On one side, Hernandez has yet to finish three seasons of professional baseball. He's also coming off a month missed with bursitis in his right shoulder.

In the end, there are too many reasons for the Mariners to promote Hernandez instead of hold him back. He needs another challenge, a brighter stage, and today, membership in exclusive club.

"I'm just as excited to see him pitch as anybody," said Clint Nageotte, a former Tacoma teammate the Mariners called up yesterday. "Any time he pitches, it's a show. He's got a full package. And he's going to be fun to watch for a while."

Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or gbishop@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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