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Same ol' Felix for opener would suit Mariners just fine

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Same ol' Felix for opener would suit Mariners just fine play video for Same ol' Felix for opener would suit Mariners just fine

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Felix Hernandez insists he's the same guy.

Never mind the new $175 million contract. Never mind the shiny Ferrari Italia he tweeted a picture of shortly after signing that deal with the message that it was "time to take it to another level" with a new season and new deal.

Never mind the perfect game now on Hernandez's resume, which fits nicely next to the American League Cy Young Award, the three All-Star berths and the reputation as one of the true workhorses in the game at age 26.

When "The King" takes the mound for his Opening Day start in Oakland at 7:05 p.m. PT on Monday, he won't be thinking about hefty contracts or sporty cars or shiny reputations. He'll be thinking about making good pitches. It's what Hernandez does when he's at work. And he takes his job seriously.

For the Mariners, Hernandez has become an Opening Day tradition. Pencil him in. He'll be starting his sixth opener, tying him with Randy Johnson for the most in franchise history.

In his previous five, Hernandez has gone 3-0 with a 1.59 ERA. Four of those have been against the A's, with Seattle winning all four while he went 2-0 with a 1.71 ERA and just 16 hits allowed in 31 2/3 innings with eight walks and 25 strikeouts.

Same ol' Felix? That would be fine with the Mariners on Monday, but probably not so much for an A's team that presumably would welcome a different Opening Day foe for a change.

"I've seen them a lot," Hernandez said. "Sometimes that helps, sometimes not. They know you and what you've got. But it doesn't matter for me. If you make good pitches, you're going to be good."

The advantage Hernandez holds over most Major League hurlers is he has more good pitches to choose from than nearly anyone in the game. While seven straight seasons of 30-plus starts and 190-plus innings have taken a few mph off his fastball, he's more than made up for that by perfecting a wicked changeup, a quality slider and a nasty curve.

"He's got the best combined four pitches that I've ever caught," said veteran backstop Kelly Shoppach, who signed with the Mariners this offseason after eight years with the Red Sox, Indians, Rays and Mets. "That's the great luxury he has, because not every pitcher has every pitch every night. But he's fortunate where if something isn't working, he's got three others to choose from that are just as good."

Flash back to his new Ferrari here. For Hernandez, the new car joins a fleet of luxury vehicles that provides more options than most would dare dream of possessing. He said he has eight cars now, his favorite being a Nissan GT-R.

"That's what I drive the most," he said. "And the Porsche [Cayenne]."

Then there's the Mercedes GL, the Range Rover, the new Ferrari and, well, you get the picture. So how does Hernandez choose which car to fire up?

"It depends how I feel today," he said with a laugh. "How did I wake up? What feels right?"

So is that the same way Hernandez chooses from his array of pitches? Is it a gut thing, selecting one beauty over another depending on how he feels at the moment?

Nope, not at all. There is nothing whimsical about his pitch selection.

"I have a plan for every hitter before I even go to the mound," Hernandez said. "So I never change my mind. Because I can't think on the mound. If I'm thinking on the mound, it's not going to be good."

Hernandez did spend some time this offseason thinking about how last year ended. After a terrific midseason stretch of 14 games during which he went 9-0 with a 1.40 ERA and five shutouts, including his perfect game against the Rays, Hernandez scuffled down the stretch and was 0-4 with a 6.62 ERA his last six outings.

He insists he didn't wear down physically despite a fourth straight season of 230-plus innings, but simply didn't make good pitches when he needed. That's his mantra, and he's sticking with it.

"I just want to be consistent the whole year," Hernandez said. "That's what makes you good."

So Hernandez stuck with the same offseason workout regimen that helped him lose about 20 pounds the prior year, this time adding in an improved diet that has him looking strong and fit as he heads into his ninth Major League season.

"I'm a young man," he said. "I'm going to be 27 [on April 8]. That's not old. But every day you learn something, so I'm more mature. I'm a different guy than I was when I got here."

Hernandez believes the Mariners will be a different team this year as well. After living on the edge in 2012, winning four of his shutouts -- including the perfect game -- by a 1-0 score, he's eager to see how the beefed-up offense plays out in the regular season.

He looks around the clubhouse this spring and sees veteran hitters like Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay helping make things easier for the promising young nucleus that had to sink or swim on its own last year.

"We have a better offense," Hernandez said. "Morales, Raul, Morse, Bay, they're going to help a lot. If [Franklin Gutierrez] can stay healthy, it's going to be a difference. And our pitching staff is pretty good. It's a different vibe in here. We're just having fun."

This is the team Hernandez committed his next seven seasons to when he signed his new deal just as Spring Training began. He shed tears that day as he vowed to not disappoint anyone, to not change, to live up to the hope and hype that goes along with being the face of the only franchise he's ever played for since signing with the Mariners as a 16-year-old prospect out of Venezuela.

It's why Hernandez insists now that he hasn't changed a bit and is just doing what he needs to get ready for another season, intent on doing his part.

What Hernandez longs for is to see the team take that big step forward along with him. And he thinks the improvements made this offseason and the veteran players added to the up-and-coming talent could make for something special.

"It means a lot to me," he said. "I thank this organization for giving me the opportunity to play baseball. They're going the right direction. We have a lot of talent in here. We're going to surprise people."

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.

{"event":["opening_day" ] }
{"event":["opening_day" ] }
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