SEATTLE — The Seattle Mariners thought their bullpen matched up with the best in baseball. It was built with depth and quality to close out games: David Phelps, Juan Nicasio and Nick Vincent would turn the game over to Edwin Diaz in the ninth.
That bullpen was pretty locked up. But then Phelps went down with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm late in the spring.
Enter left-hander Wade LeBlanc.
Yes, that LeBlanc, who was with the Mariners two seasons ago. The one who was on a minor-league contract with the Yankees just hoping to earn a roster spot.
In a matter of hours last week, LeBlanc went from possible New York minor-leaguer to being cut to being in the Mariners’ clubhouse on a major-league contract. And pitching out of the bullpen.
“Pretty crazy,” LeBlanc said. “I’ve packed my bags and lived out of suitcases a lot in my career. You kind of get used to it, but this is something a little bit different than I’ve done before.
“Until those last 48 hours it was extremely normal,” LeBlanc said. “Just kind of a typical spring training, trying to fine-tune mechanics and release points and that boring stuff.”
He’s not expected to be Phelps. The Mariners hope they have Phelps’ replacement in hard-throwing Dan Altavilla.
But LeBlanc does provide some flexibility, being a former starting pitcher who can throw in a spot-start if needed. The 33-year-old is a lefty but has played like a righty throughout his career because of his reverse splits — in the past three seasons left-handers have hit .270 against him and righties are hitting .236.
“Just to be honest, career-wise it has taken me a long time to figure out how to use my best pitch, which is my changeup, against lefties,” LeBlanc said. “It just took me a long time to figure out the best way to attack lefties. But the last few years I had started to really reverse that trend and figure out a way to attack lefties better.”
He’ll fill a multi-inning, long reliever role alongside right-hander Casey Lawrence, who was a nonroster invitee to spring training before solidifying a spot in the bullpen.
LeBlanc made three starts and eight total appearances when he first arrived in Seattle in 2016 in a trade with the Blue Jays for a player to be named later — which would have been LeBlanc if he had pitched well and the Mariners returned their other starters from injuries, Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto revealed in one of his podcasts.
“That set up the potential of trading Wade LeBlanc for Wade LeBlanc, which would have been awesome,” Dipoto said. “We weren’t quite able to get there, but that would have been awesome.”
Said LeBlanc: “If that’s going to happen, it’s going to happen to me.”
Catcher Mike Zunino was originally in the Mariners starting lineup for Opening Day on Thursday, but he was removed late because of stiffness in his side. Mariners officials said that he felt the discomfort on his second-to-last swing during batting practice on Wednesady and they don’t believe it to be significant. They said they hope to have him ready by Saturday’s game following the Mariners’ off day Friday.
Mike Marjama started in Zunino’s place, with Felix Hernandez pitching.
Iwakuma, Ramirez throwing
Mariners manager Scott Servais said that right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma threw a bullpen session Thursday as he returns from right shoulder surgery. The plan is for Iwakuma to throw again this weekend, and same with Erasmo Ramirez, who is recovering from a lat strain.
“Kuma will get another couple more bullpens under his belt, then he’ll probably throw live (batting practice) and then we’ll see where Tacoma is at and working with them,” Servais said before Thursday’s game. “And same with Erasmo, but Erasmo will get ramped up quicker. He’s not coming back from a major injury like Kuma. But both of those guys will get out and start to get their assignments very soon.”
Ramirez isn’t expected to be ready by April 11, when the Mariners need to add a fifth starter. But he could be ready by the next turn in the rotation or one after that.