Felix looks to build off breakout campaign

Felix looks to build off breakout campaign

All the excitement surrounding Opening Day can be a distraction for some pitchers, but Mariners right-hander Felix Hernandez enjoys all the attention the game gets.

"I love pitching on Opening Day," Hernandez said. "It's a lot of fun, and for me it's an honor. I like that kind of game, that kind of pressure."

He has handled the pressure quite well, allowing one run in 16 Opening Day innings.

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The intensity will be high again on Monday night at the Oakland Coliseum, where the Mariners begin the 2010 season with their ace on the mound. Behind him will be three players that were not on the field when the team won its 85th game last season, capping a Major League-best, 24-win improvement.

Hernandez won that game, his 19th of the season, to finish off a remarkable stretch that started on May 24, the starting date of his coming-out party.

Hernandez reeled off a 15-2 record and 1.98 ERA and had a quality start (three runs or fewer over six innings) in 24 of his last 25 starts. He earned his first All-Star Game invitation and finished second to Royals right-hander Zack Greinke for the American League's Cy Young Award.

"Felix has a lot of personality and fun, but I have noticed a more serious side to his preparation this year, which is neat to watch," pitching coach Rick Adair said. "I think he realizes what he did last year and all the things that went into it.

"Felix has a lot of pride in what he does and the mindset that he can repeat what he did."

Indeed, Hernandez appears ready to carry the same load as last season, when he pitched 238 2/3 innings, posted a record of 19-5 with a 2.49 ERA and landed a five-year, $78 million contract extension.

"The ball is coming out of his hand as good as it was when he was on a roll last year," Adair said after one of Hernandez's late-spring outings.

"I'm ready for the opener, and I'm excited," Hernandez said.

This will be the third Opening Day assignment for Hernandez, who celebrates his 24th birthday the day before the opener. He mastered the Athletics in 2007, striking out 12 over eight shutout innings at home, and defeated the Twins, 6-1, last season on the road.

Manager Don Wakamatsu realizes the importance of having Hernandez around -- both as a team leader and in the five-man rotation, which starts the season without left-hander Cliff Lee in it. A strained right abdominal muscle knocked Lee for a loop in Spring Training, and he figures to miss at least the first two weeks of the regular season.

Seattle Mariners
Projected Opening Day lineup
1 CF Ichiro Suzuki
2 2B Chone Figgins
3 CF Franklin Gutierrez
4 LF Milton Bradley
5 DH Ken Griffey Jr.
6 1B Casey Kotchman
7 3B Jose Lopez
8 CF Rob Johnson
9 SS Jack Wilson
Projected rotation
1 RHP Felix Hernandez
2 RHP Ian Snell
3 LHP Ryan Rowland-Smith
4 RHP Doug Fister
5 LHP Jason Vargas
Projected bullpen
CL RHP David Aardsma
SU RHP Mark Lowe
SU RHP Sean White
MI RHP Shawn Kelley
MI RHP Brandon League
MI RHP Kanekoa Texeira
MI LHP Garrett Olson
Full 25-man roster | Depth chart

With or without Lee, nothing changes for Hernandez. Wakamatsu made sure that message was presented to his star pitcher early in camp.

"He told me, 'You've got to do the same things you did last year,' and that's what I'm going to do," Hernandez said.

Wakamatsu was not telling Hernandez to win practically every game, but to prepare for each start the same way he did a year ago, pay attention to detail at all times and do what he does best -- keep the team in the game as many times as possible.

Meanwhile, Phase II of the Zduriencik Plan is in place.

General manager Jack Zduriencik was hailed a hero for turning a 101-loss team in 2008 to an 85-win team in '09, but kept the pedal to the metal by adding more important pieces this offseason -- signing free-agent infielder Chone Figgins, and trading for first baseman Casey Kotchman, left fielder Milton Bradley, reliever Brandon League and Lee.

The team the Mariners put on the field against the Athletics on Monday might not be a finished product, but it is a team many expect to challenge for the AL West title. For that to happen, Lee must come back and pitch the way he did during the 2008 season -- when he won 22 games for the Indians and the Cy Young Award for himself -- and in the '09 postseason with the Phillies.

The Mariners also must score more runs than they did a year ago, when they finished last in the AL.

It would be difficult to top the first two batters in the lineup -- Ichiro Suzuki and Figgins, who spent eight productive seasons with the division-rival Angels.

They should get on base at least 400 times combined, which puts the onus on the middle of the lineup moving them around the bases. Wakamatsu will start the season with Kotchman batting third against right-handers and Franklin Gutierrez vs. lefties and the switch-hitting Bradley batting cleanup, as long as he produces.

Seattle has its fingers, toes, arms and legs crossed that the mercurial outfielder makes more news for all the good things he does on the field.

Ken Griffey Jr. returns for what might be the final season of his Hall of Fame career.

If all the pieces fall into place, the Mariners could be playing well into October for the first time since 2001.

And if that happens, Hernandez will have a lot to do with it.

Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.