Felix Hernandez makes his Cactus League debut Thursday for the Mariners when they face the Royals in Surprise, Ariz. But while it seems like the Mariners ace has been held back this spring on a slower schedule, in reality he's right on pace with previous years.

Though Hernandez threw sooner last year when the Mariners opened the season a week ahead of other Major League teams in Tokyo, he and pitching coach Carl Willis are following the exact same schedule this spring that he was on in 2011.

That year, he threw a 33-pitch simulated game to four Minor League hitters on March 3, then made his first Cactus League start March 7 and worked his way toward an Opening Day start on April 1 against the A's.

If that sounds familiar, it should be. Hernandez threw a final live batting practice session to four Minor League hitters on Sunday (also March 3), and now will face the Royals on March 7 and begin building toward another Opening Day against the A's on April 1.

The difference this year is that Cactus League games started a week sooner than normal to give some players a chance to get ready in time for the World Baseball Classic. But with Hernandez opting out of the Classic, there was no need to rush him.

"It seems like everyone is under the impression that he's behind," Willis said. "We started games on Feb. 22. He didn't need to start that soon. He'll be to 95-100 pitches by the time we get out of camp."

Though Willis won't set anything in stone, you can expect Hernandez to start every fifth day from here on out, which puts him on pace to face the D-backs on March 12, the Rangers on March 17, the Padres on March 22 and the Dodgers on March 27.

If all goes well, he'll get his pitch count up to 90-plus in his final start and then be ready to throw 110 pitches or so if needed in the opener in Oakland.

The Mariners have a split-squad day on Wednesday, so Hernandez was chosen to face the Royals instead of the division-rival A's in the afternoon's other game in Phoenix. He's scheduled to throw two innings, with Hisashi Iwakuma to follow with three innings of his own.

The Mariners are bringing much of their top bullpen arms for that game as well, with closer Tom Wilhelmsen, lefty Lucas Luetge and hard-throwing youngsters Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor each slated for an inning.

Young right-hander Brandon Maurer gets the start in the A's game, but will only throw one inning as nine pitchers are slated to go one frame each. James Paxton and Jeremy Bonderman will be the first to follow Maurer.