By Jim Caple
Page 2

Now that Felix Hernandez is no longer a teenager (he turned 20 on Saturday), the Mariners will stop pampering their star prospect.

Oh, they'll still only pitch him on Catholic feast days in months that have an R in them. And they'll still sacrifice a rooster and bury a potato in the mound at midnight under a full moon before his starts. And they'll make sure he is vaccinated against rubella, typhoid, tetanus, polio, whooping cough and dengue fever. And they'll still make sure he sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber the night before a game, avoids direct sunlight the day of a game and wears ChapStick and 50-block sunscreen during the game. And they'll still check the wind speed before game time to make sure it isn't blowing more than 4.73 miles per hour from the north-northwest. And he'll still eat only organic vegetables and wait at least wait one hour after eating a meal before stepping onto the field. And they'll still have a Brinks crew drive him in from the bullpen for the first pitch and have a Cub Scout walk him back to the mound each inning. And they'll still have a team doctor monitor his blood pressure between pitches and still pack him in a padded container between innings. And after the game, they'll still have the team trainer and a Swiss masseuse rub down his right arm with Bengay, flaxseed oil, Brylcreem, Heinz 57, Neatsfoot oil, holy water and WD-40, wrap it with four rolls of duct tape and then store him in a wine cellar at a precise temperature of 55 degrees with a humidity level of exactly 79 percent. And after the season, they'll once again seal him in carbonite and store him next to Han Solo for the winter.

They will not, however, require that he continue wearing Annie Savoy's garter belt (with the rosebud in the front). From now on, they're leaving that entirely up to him.

Am I exaggerating? Perhaps, but only to drive home the point of how valuable Felix is to the Mariners and how carefully they're handling him. At age 20, Hernandez has a smoking mid-90s fastball with a low 80s curveball that is practically unfair and a changeup that should be illegal. He's been compared to a young Dwight Gooden (which is much better than being compared to a 40-something Dwight Gooden). The morning after his major league debut, the local paper ran a headline with the sort of font size usually reserved for war declarations -- and Felix lost that game. Seattle hadn't been so excited about a debut since the launch of Windows 95.

Having him in the rotation is like having Bill Gates' credit card.

Ichiro may have been the team's best and most popular player in recent seasons, but he hasn't been able to keep the Mariners out of last place. Felix, however, provides a chance that he can improve the pitching staff enough to make a real difference. Seattle fans certainly expect it. The line to get Felix's autograph wrapped around the block when the Mariners held their winter FanFest in January. Asked what Felix means, one of these fans replied simply, "Hope."

And all this for a pitcher with a 4-5 career record.

The road of Safeco Field is paved with torn labrums and ruined rotator cuffs, though, and the Mariners have a long trail of failed and injured prospects (has anyone seen Ryan Anderson lately?). They are determined to keep Felix healthy. Now and for years to come.

"We are going to protect him this year," manager Mike Hargrove said before the season. "He will not pitch at the top of the rotation and we will limit his innings. A talent like this comes along very seldom. At 19 or 20, we want to do everything we can to protect his arm and not risk an injury.

"As we get into this season and see how things develop, we might take the gloves off a little."

For now, the plan is to keep him to 190 or so innings. They strictly monitor his pitch counts and limit his interviews. There is the possibility they will even skip a start or two when they have some off days.

Felix missed his final two starts of spring training due to shin splints and was understandably rusty when he pitched his first game last week. He allowed only two hits and a run but also walked four batters while throwing 100 pitches in five innings in a 5-0 loss to Oakland. The high pitch count, relative lack of location and low run support were a bit of a disappointment, but it's a very long season and he'll have plenty of starts to win over the next six months.

And, the Mariners plan, many more starts over the next two decades.

Provided, of course, he remembers to bring them a notarized permission note from his mother.

BOX SCORE LINE OF THE WEEK
The great thing about Pedro Martinez is that when he takes the mound you're not sure whether you're going to get a no-hitter or a hockey fight. In his start last Thursday against Washington, he hit three players, prompting a bench-clearing incident on the field and this line:

HBP-N. Johnson By P. Martinez; J. Guillen 2 .

He's just lucky Don Zimmer isn't coaching the Nationals

FROM LEFT FIELD
If Felix has the type of season at age 20 that Seattle fans expect, the Mariners could be a much-improved team. They'll probably be happy if he can match these seasons by 20-year-olds:

20 YEARS YOUNG
Pitcher The Skinny
Walter Johnson 14-14 with 1.65 ERA
Babe Ruth 18-8 with 2.44 ERA and also hit .315 with 4 HR
Bob Feller Led AL in wins (24) and strikeouts (246) with 2.85 ERA
Jim Palmer 15-10 with 3.33 ERA, Game 4 shutout in World Series
Bert Blyleven 16-15 with 3.57 ERA
Frank Tanana 14-19 with 3.44 ERA
Fernando Valenzuela Threw eight shutouts and won Cy Young
Dwight Gooden Was 24-4 with 1.53 ERA and won Cy Young
Bret Saberhagen 10-11 4.04 ERA
Kerry Wood Struck out his age in one of most dominating games in history

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," is on sale at bookstores nationwide. It also can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com. Sound off to Page 2 here.




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