By Kirby Arnold Herald Writer
PEORIA, Ariz. — With an announcement about as shocking as a prediction of sunrise, Seattle Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said Wednesday that right-hander Felix Hernandez will start the opener Monday night at Oakland.
After Hernandez, things are about as predictable with the Mariners’ starting pitching as they are with Cliff Lee’s recovery from a strained abdomen.
Lee’s status, not only with his injury but also his five-game suspension, is precisely why Wakamatsu was reluctant to put any stamp of finality on the rotation. Right-hander Ian Snell will pitch the second game, followed by left-hander Ryan Rowland-Smith, right-hander Doug Fister and left-hander Jason Vargas.
There’s an outside chance it won’t stay that way.
“There’s a lot of dynamics that are going on right now,” Wakamatsu said.
The state of Lee’s injury could affect whether the Mariners ride the with the current arrangement of starters or pursue other options — namely a trade or signing.
Wakamatsu couldn’t even say who his long reliever in the bullpen would be.
“So much of it revolves around what’s going on with Cliff Lee and we don’t have any answers to that right now,” Wakamatsu said.
A five-minute throwing session Wednesday morning by Lee may have provided some clues, if not answers.
He played catch with first-base coach Lee Tinsley, half the time while on one knee to ease the pressure from his injured lower right ab muscle and half time on both feet.
For the first time since he was injured March 15, Lee said he didn’t feel any discomfort while throwing.
“I’ve been slowly been getting better, but it’s a strange injury,” he said. “You really don’t know where you’re going to be until you throw. I can do a lot of stuff. I do probably 15 different exercises in the water, rotational stuff, and I feel absolutely nothing. That was the case before I threw last time and, for whatever reason, throwing was the only thing I felt it with.”
Six days ago, after Lee felt pain for the second straight time while playing catch, the Mariners shut him down a few days from throwing. He made a few throws two days ago while sitting on a chair — an exercise designed to take the strain off the injury — and felt good.
Wednesday’s five-minute session, as brief and leisurely as it was, represented the first positive news on Lee since he was hurt.
“It’s a you-don’t-know-until-you-try-it type deal and I’m pleased with how I felt today,” he said. “It’s a step forward and we’re heading in the right direction.”
Lee says he has no personal timetable on when he will pitch again, only that it’s frustrating to be headed to the disabled list.
“The hardest thing is that my arm feels good, my legs feel good and I feel like I can let the ball go,” he said. “I almost have to hold myself back to make sure nothing happens. It’s a strange thing. It’s one of those deals where if you do too much you go backwards. The season’s about to start and mentally I want to push and get better but I’ve got to make sure I play it safe.”
The Mariners aren’t saying how long they expect Lee to be out, and he isn’t estimating when he’ll return even though he has suffered a similar injury twice in his career.
“I’m focusing on what I can do today to prepare for tomorrow,” Lee said. “I don’t want to look that far down the road. I can take care of today. That’s really all I can take care of right now, and that’s where my focus is.”
And, for now, the Mariners have placed their five starters in order.
Wakamatsu said having two right-handers at the top of the rotation — Hernandez and Snell — was less important than how all five match up with the A’s and Rangers, who the Mariners play in their first three series.
“What you’re looking at is how you juggle it as you go forward. Read between the lines,” Wakamatsu said. “The other thing is how it sets up the first three series.”
While spring training numbers mean little, the Mariners’ starting five have been impressive in the final days. In the past seven games — not including Wednesday’s start against Texas by David Pauley, who was sent down last week — Mariners starters combined for a 2.86 earned run average.
“We feel like we’ve had pretty good performances from those guys,” Wakamatsu said. “Whether it’s Vargas or Fister or Snell, we’ve got to rely on those guys heavily.
Snell could be a key, pitching out of the second spot until Lee returns, because it’s important that he pitch deep into games to keep the bullpen fresh.
“From the first time I saw him to now I think he’s grown tremendously,” Wakamatsu said. “You look at the confidence level he came over with, he basically had been down in Triple-A with Pittsburgh after being one of their best pitchers. He’s regaining that belief system.”
Fister is the biggest uncertainty because he missed time at spring training after he was hit on his right forearm by a line drive. He also doesn’t throw with the velocity that would save him on days when his secondary pitches aren’t sharp.
“The biggest question is we haven’t been able to give him quite as much time,” Wakamatsu said. “But we’ve made some adjustments in his mechanics.”