Struggles vs. Felix may be preview of tough division race

Angels will have to improve against Mariners' ace to compete in AL West

Struggles vs. Felix may be preview of tough division race

SEATTLE -- There was a time when it looked like the Angels had Felix Hernandez's number, silly as that may sound. It was three short years ago, in 2012. They scored 24 runs on 41 hits in 31 2/3 innings against the Mariners' ace that season. And then, whether through personal adjustments or sheer forces of nature, Hernandez became to the Angels what he always was for everybody else:

That guy you never want to see, especially on Opening Day.

"I can't say enough good things about him," Angels catcher Chris Iannetta said after his team's 4-1 loss at Safeco Field. "He's a competitor. He locates. I don't know how many pitches he throws. It seems like 12."

And it seemed like the Angels were on their way against Hernandez on Monday afternoon, when Trout's first-inning fly ball sailed over the center-field fence for a solo homer. But then Hernandez retired the next nine hitters in order and allowed only three of the last 22 he faced to reach base, finishing with seven innings of one-run, two-hit ball.

Since that 2012 season, Hernandez is 6-1 with a 1.75 ERA in 11 starts against the Angels. Since the start of '13, he's held them to six runs (four earned) on 16 hits and 10 walks in 41 innings, a span that has seen the 28-year-old right-hander strike out 57 batters.

"I don't make adjustments," Hernandez said, because when you've finished among the top four in American League Cy Young Award voting in four of the last six years, you don't really need to.

"This guy is a good pitcher," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "There is no doubt he's made adjustments as his career went on, like most pitchers will. He's tough. We have gotten some good looks at him before. The last couple outings have been tough. We didn't swing the bats very well up here last year. Not just against him, but against their staff."

And that's the troubling thing about this division race that many expect will come down to the Angels and Mariners.

The Angels could probably stomach the occasional dominance from Hernandez.

"How many times will we face him?" Iannetta said, and the answer is probably somewhere around five. "That's a small sample size."

But what makes the Mariners so dangerous this year, and what has prompted many to pick them in the AL West, is the strength of their rotation as a whole. It's not just Hernandez. It's James Paxton, who has a 2.66 ERA in 98 career innings. It's Hisashi Iwakuma, two years removed from finishing third in AL Cy Young Award voting. It's Taijuan Walker, the 22-year-old right-hander who just allowed two runs in 27 innings of Spring Training.

"We play them a lot," Angels center fielder Mike Trout said. "That whole starting staff is tough."

And the Angels batted only .208 at Safeco Field last season, their lowest batting average at any venue in 2014. Their chances of winning a division this year could hinge largely on beating good pitching in Seattle, regardless of whether King Felix is on the mound.

"They're a good team," Iannetta said. "They're going to battle. They have a great pitching staff; bullpen is really good. We're a good team, too. We're going to play hard and see what happens."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.