By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — The reality from a bleak-news Friday crystallized Saturday for the Seattle Mariners as the calendar turned to March.
Manager Lloyd McClendon acknowledged neither Hisashi Iwakuma nor Taijuan Walker are likely to be sufficiently recovered from injuries in time to open the season in the rotation.
“I think it would be hard-pressed for those guys to pitch opening day,” McClendon said. “Or the second or third day. One of the problems we face is we don’t have any days off early. We play seven days in a row.
“Speaking realistically, I think it would be tough (for Iwakuma and Walker to be ready).”
That means the Mariners, in their quest to end an extended stay in Sorryville, are now scrambling to build a rotation minus an All-Star and the organization’s top prospect.
“I always plan for the worst,” McClendon said. “Our contingency plan has been that. Like I said before, this gives other guys opportunities to go out and see what they can do. We’ll see what happens.”
Iwakuma had been optimistic he could begin throwing Saturday when he underwent an examination Friday to gauge his recovery from a strained tendon in the middle finger of his pitching hand.
Instead, he was told to keep wearing a protective splint for three more weeks, which means he can’t throw a baseball in that time frame. It wasn’t entirely unexpected; the original prognosis was four-to-six weeks.
“I was, honestly, disappointed,” Iwakuma said through interpreter Antony Suzuki. “Frustrated, too, at the same time. But you have to respect what the doctor says. … I just have to wait three more weeks.”
Walker was shut down Friday from throwing for one week after an examination by a specialist in Los Angeles confirmed the Mariners’ diagnosis of inflammation in the bursa of his throwing shoulder.
“Honestly, I’m just going to try to take it day by day,” Walker said. “See how I feel each day. Try not to worry about the start of the season. I’ll just worry about first getting healthy.
“I don’t want to get too ahead of myself. Or try to push anything. I was trying to win a rotation spot this season, but it is what it is. I’m behind a little bit, but I’ll fight my way back up.”
Each pitcher is likely looking at a minimum of three weeks of endurance-building pitching activities once they begin throwing before returning to active duty.
Iwakuma anticipates no restrictions beyond the normal build-up precautions once he gains clearance, but Walker will be closely monitored to ensure he is pain-free as he progresses through the various stages.
For both, a mid-April return looms as the best-case scenario.
So where does that leave the Mariners?
McClendon confirmed, with a dash of gallows humor, that staff ace Felix Hernandez — assuming he stays healthy — will start the season opener March 31 against the Angels in Anaheim.
“Unless you’ve got somebody else,” McClendon quipped. “I’m trying to see if he can go opening day, the second day and the third day.”
Assuming Hernandez does start the opener, he will break the club records he currently shares with Randy Johnson for most starts on opening day by a pitcher (six) and most consecutive starts on opening day by a pitcher (five).
What comes after Hernandez, at this point, is anybody’s guess.
Right-hander Erasmo Ramirez, rookie lefty James Paxton and veteran Scott Baker each worked two shutout innings in starting the Mariners’ first three spring games.
Lefty Randy Wolf is next in line today against Cleveland in Goodyear. Like Baker, he is a non-roster invite seeking to regain his form after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Blake Beavan is also down for a look.
The list could expand to include Brandon Maurer, Matt Palmer, Hector Noesi and others. All will work around Hernandez, whose spring debut is scheduled for Tuesday against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Glendale.
Iwakuma and Walker, meanwhile, can do little but mark days off a calendar that now shows less than a month before the season opens — a season that seems certain to open with both of them on the disabled list.
“It is very disappointing,” Iwakuma said. “You can think about it, but that doesn’t get you anywhere. You just have to move forward.
“I just have to come back as soon as possible and make sure I don’t have any setbacks by coming back too quickly. That’s all I can think about right now — going forward.”