The future of Felix Hernandez

SEATTLE -- It's been seven years since Felix Hernandez reached perfection -- the first and only time a Mariner has hit the mark.

But since the 2012 season, a slow decline has led to other firsts, ones that are much harder to face.

Yet every spring, the fans still gather in hopes that their king has returned.

"Felix is a competitor. He's a very proud player, like many veterans are," Mariners Manager Scott Servais says. "He wants to get back to doing his thing. We're going to let him. We'll give him the ball, and we'll see if he takes it and runs with it.

For the first time in a decade, Hernandez wasn't on the mound for the team's season opener. In the final year of his seven-year, $175 million contract, the former ace has been slated for the fifth and final spot in the rotation.

It's a move that many saw coming. The soon-to-be 33-year-old has been struggling.

His ERA has increased in each of the last four seasons, accumulating to an all-time low in 2018. He posted an 8 and 14 record, another first in his 15-year major league career. He was demoted to the bullpen.

But Hernandez doesn't talk about what went wrong last season, or the reality that his time in Seattle could be coming to an end.

"I forget about it," he says. "I came here ready to pitch. I came here ready to help this team win. People can get told whatever they want. I know myself, so that's all I got to say."

And if you ask his teammates, nothing has changed.

"He's the same guy. He's the same Felix," pitcher Marco Gonzales says. "He loves to have fun. He has so much passion for the game."

Fellow pitcher Hunter Strickland agrees.

"He's still got the fire, still got the passion that you would expect a rookie to have, so I don't necessarily think or believe it's the tail-end. He's still hungry and ready to play."

And that's exactly what Hernandez plans on doing.

"Seattle's home for me. Seattle, you know, has given me ... the fans out there, they're unbelievable ... The organization just gives me the opportunity to play baseball, and I'm still here."

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