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Consummate pro, Felix strives for more

Consummate pro, Felix strives for more

Consummate pro, Felix strives for more
TOKYO -- He's been one of the best pitchers in baseball for the past six years, a monster talent on a Mariners club that hasn't often provided him the kind of offensive support he deserves.

But Felix Hernandez doesn't worry about that. Instead, he focused again this offseason on making himself better, getting stronger, slimmer, better prepared for the rigors of another 30-plus start campaign.

Even though he posted his second All-Star season and was clearly the best player in a Seattle uniform, Hernandez went home and worked hard enough to lose 15 pounds. His jersey hangs loose on his upper body this spring, but he likes it that way as he heads toward the fifth Opening Day start of his career against the A's on Wednesday in the Tokyo Dome.

What pushed him to work so hard this winter?

"I'm just trying to look good, you know?" he said with a sly smile, flexing his biceps before dissolving into a typical Hernandez fit of laughter.

Look good, feel good, pitch good. It's all part of the program. After winning the American League Cy Young Award in 2010, Hernandez went 14-14 with a 3.47 ERA last year on a team that lost 95 games.

That wasn't good enough for a guy who takes great pride in being the King.

March 28: Mariners 3, A's 1
March 29: A's 4, Mariners 1
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"I want to have a better season," Hernandez said when pushed. "Last year was not consistent. I'm trying to have a great season and help this team win."

Any perceived lack of consistency wasn't noticed much by his teammates. At age 25, Hernandez is the unquestioned leader of Seattle's pitching staff and a guy who has earned the respect of friends and foes alike.

"Felix is Felix. He's the King," said Mariners catcher Miguel Olivo, an 11-year veteran in his second season back with Seattle. "He's got everything. I don't worry about Felix. I know what he's going to do and he knows what he's going to do. Everybody knows what he's going to do. He's going to go out there and win games and pitch seven, eight, nine innings every time."

Olivo said the first time he caught Hernandez in the bullpen a year ago, he shook his head in amazement. Opposing hitters know the feeling.

"The movement on his ball is just unreal," said A's outfielder Josh Reddick, who faced Hernandez last year while with the Red Sox. "And he puts it where he wants to."

Olivo enjoys catching Hernandez because of the variety of pitches he can dial up.

"You call for one of the best pitches he's got and he'll decide to throw a different one," Olivo said. "And it's even nastier than the other one. That's the fun thing about him. Every pitch he throws, you need to be ready because it's going to come nasty."

It didn't take young catcher Jesus Montero long to discover the unique talent of Hernandez after arriving by trade from the Yankees this offseason.

"Nobody touches his pitches," Montero said. "That's different."

Of course, Hernandez isn't perfect. His ERA was the highest it's been since 2007 last year. Which is why he continues working.

Mariners
Projected Opening Day lineup
1 3B Chone Figgins
2 2B Dustin Ackley
3 RF Ichiro Suzuki
4 1B Justin Smoak
5 DH Jesus Montero
6 LF Mike Carp
7 C Miguel Olivo
8 CF Michael Saunders
9 SS Brendan Ryan
Projected rotation
1 RHP Felix Hernandez
2 LHP Jason Vargas
3 RHP Hector Noesi
4 RHP Blake Beavan
5 RHP Kevin Millwood
Active roster | Depth chart
"I know I can do good," he said. "But I want to do more and more and more."

Mariners manager Eric Wedge appreciates what his ace does on and off the field for the club. He knows Hernandez has committed long term to the franchise, and has continually stated he doesn't want to play anywhere else.

"He is in better shape this year," Wedge said. "But he's always a competitor and that's not going to change. He's a guy that has a mindset you want everybody to have, and obviously he's a great talent on top of that."

As for the commitment to Seattle? Hernandez remains unwavering, even with seemingly every national reporter who visits the team raising the question of whether he wants to be traded somewhere -- the Yankees, perhaps? -- every time he does an interview.

"I tell them, I don't want to leave, you know?" he said, shrugging his shoulders. "They keep asking me. But forget about that. I'm not going nowhere."

Even when he has been rewarded with just a 27-26 record over the past two years while winning a Cy Young Award and further establishing himself as one of the game's premier pitchers?

"Baseball is like that. Baseball is weird," he said. "I know this offense is trying really, really hard. I'm not paying attention to [the win-loss record]. I look at the other numbers, like ERA and all that."

But Hernandez does pay attention to an offense that is establishing a new core around youngsters like Montero, Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Mike Carp.

"We've got a lot of talent over there," Hernandez said. "Unbelievable. And we're going the right direction. That's why I want to stay here. We're going the right direction."

As for Hernandez? Even after seven seasons in the Majors, he is just 25 years old. He says he's still learning, still becoming a smarter pitcher.

The man who catches him has seen that up close and personal this spring.

"He's good," Olivo said, "but he's getting better and better every year. And if he keeps doing that, he's just going to get nastier and nastier and nastier. I'm happy for him. He lost a lot of weight and now he throws even nastier pitches. I'm impressed. I can't wait to start the season with him in Japan and see what he's going to do."

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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