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Originally published March 24, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 2, 2007 at 9:06 PM

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It's Felix for M's on opening day

A friendly slap near the belly of Felix Hernandez was more than just his manager's way of telling him he'd be starting on opening day. The sixth-inning gesture by...

Seattle Times staff reporter

PEORIA, Ariz. — A friendly slap near the belly of Felix Hernandez was more than just his manager's way of telling him he'd be starting on opening day.

The sixth-inning gesture by Mariners manager Mike Hargrove was a fitting symbol, since Hernandez's shrunken midsection is a major reason he was anointed the No. 1 starter. Hargrove mentioned Hernandez's maturity level several times in announcing his decision to make the Venezuelan native the youngest opening-day starter in a generation.

Hernandez tried his best not to show his age in the clubhouse afterward, maintaining a stoic disposition for as long as possible before a giddy grin kept pushing its way through.

"He told me, 'Good outing!' " Hernandez said of Hargrove's words after he jogged off the field during Seattle's 10-6 victory over the Los Angeles Angels on Friday. "I said, 'Thank you.' Then he said, 'Let's try to do that on opening day.' I was so proud."

Hernandez will be 20 years, 359 days old when he faces the Oakland Athletics at Safeco Field on April 2. That makes him even younger than Dwight Gooden, who was already 21 years and three months old when he started opening day for the New York Mets in 1986.

"That means a lot," Hernandez said of the assignment. "To throw opening day is one of the best things for a pitcher. I'm so excited about that."

Hernandez wasn't as proud, or excited, back in October, when he rested at his parents' home in the Venezuelan city of Valencia. He was physically and mentally drained from his first full big-league season, one in which he went 12-14 with a 4.52 earned-run average and had his conditioning repeatedly questioned.

At the time, he knew that a long, grinding exercise regimen lay ahead. When he finally emerged from it months later, he was 20 pounds lighter and his new energy seemed to give his floundering organization a boost as well.

"In the offseason, I was working a lot for this," he said. "I was working to get ready for spring training and for opening day." Still, he hadn't expected the reward to come so soon.

"I was thinking that next year I would be the opening-day starter, not this year," Hernandez said. "Now I've got it, so I have to do my job right now."

While his spring numbers won't show it, Hernandez clearly outdistanced the other starters here. He looked dominant at times, with an ease on the mound far older than his actual years.

"It wasn't any surprise," Hargrove said of his decision. "But there were some things that I wanted to be sure of. Not whether he could physically handle being the opening-day starter, but mentally, could he handle it? And this kid came into camp with a great attitude, in great shape.

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"He hasn't come in and talked to me about it, but I know that he wanted this. And he's earned it."

An example of Hernandez's tougher mental approach came in Friday's start. Hernandez toyed with the Angels the first two hitless innings, getting five ground-ball outs and freezing feared slugger Vladimir Guerrero for a strikeout. But the wheels came off a bit in the third and fourth innings, with the Angels scoring two runs in each.

"It was my location," said Hernandez, who kept leaving the ball up in the zone.

It didn't help that he twisted his left ankle on a fourth-inning pitch to Shea Hillenbrand. Hernandez's foot landed in a hole that had been left on the mound by the planting feet of other pitchers.

Trainer Rick Griffin and pitching coach Rafael Chaves sprinted to the mound. It was the second time in a week Hernandez had rolled the ankle, having done so against Milwaukee last weekend.

The pitcher had some trouble with the Angels after that, as Hillenbrand doubled, Casey Kotchman singled and two runs scored. But Hernandez regained his poise, adjusted his pitches and went on to retire eight of the final nine hitters he faced.

And he'll get the chance to celebrate his new designation with those closest to him, since his mother, Mirian, and his father, Felix, arrived in Arizona from Venezuela on Thursday. Hernandez didn't move out of his parents' home until just a few months ago, a reminder of just how young the arm fronting this staff truly is.

"When you're an opening-day starter, you're also like a leader for the team," Hernandez said. "You have to go out and do your best. So, I think it's the greatest thing of my life."

Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or gbaker@seattletimes.com.

Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners

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