SEATTLE — How long has yet to be determined, but the Seattle Mariners will be without veteran left-handed starter Wade LeBlanc for at least a short while.
LeBlanc, 34, strained his right oblique throwing a pitch during Friday night’s loss to Houston, and was quickly pulled from the game when teammates and Mariners staff saw him grab at his right side. He had an MRI on Saturday morning, but results were not available before game time.
“I’m sure he’s going to miss some time, I just don’t know how much yet,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said.
Servais said after Friday night’s outing he thought LeBlanc would at least miss his next scheduled start — which was set for Wednesday’s homestand finale against Cleveland — but the club hadn’t made a corresponding roster move as of Saturday afternoon, and it is unlikely they will until the severity of LeBlanc’s injury is known.
“We’ll wait and see,” Servais said. “There’s a lot of moving parts right now.”
Ahead of Saturday night’s game against Houston, LeBlanc said the discomfort in his right side felt about the same as it did the night before, but did indicate he thinks the injury will be minor.
He said it doesn’t hurt to breathe or laugh, and only certain movements cause discomfort. He also said he doesn’t have the stabbing sensation some players who have oblique injuries describe.
“It doesn’t feel like that,” LeBlanc said. “It’s just kind of dull.”
LeBlanc threw 90 pitches Friday night before showing any signs of discomfort, and said every pitch up until his final two against Houston’s Tyler White felt normal. He said he’s never pulled or torn a muscle before.
“I don’t even know what a pulled muscle is supposed to feel like,” LeBlanc said. “I don’t even know how to explain, other than the word ‘strange.’ It just didn’t feel right.”
Mariners catcher Tom Murphy said he saw LeBlanc tug at something the first pitch to White, but LeBlanc indicated to Murphy he was OK. LeBlanc’s reaction to the second pitch to White — a 73.8 mph changeup that sailed high and outside of the strike zone — caused much more concern.
“It just grabbed right before release,” LeBlanc said. “When something does that you bring it to a stop.”
LeBlanc came out of his pitching motion grimacing and grabbing at his right side, and was immediately removed. Servais said he initially feared LeBlanc had injured his arm, but was more hopeful when it was ruled an oblique injury.
“Guys come back from obliques,” Servais said. “Just hopefully it’s not too severe.”
LeBlanc has logged 16 innings three starts this season, and compiled a 2-0 record and 4.50 ERA. He’s allowed eight earned runs on 21 hits across his outings, while striking out 12 and walking five.
Servais acknowledged LeBlanc’s importance in the starting rotation and the consistency he’s added since making 27 starts for Seattle last season, after signing as a free agent.
“Wade’s done a great job since we put him in the rotation last year,” Servais said. “He’s really been a guy that gives you a good effort every time out there, he keeps you in the ballgame. He was right there again (Friday) night.”
Servais gave no indication of who the Mariners might call up to replace LeBlanc, but Erik Swanson or Justus Sheffield, who both came to Seattle in the James Paxton trade with the Yankees, seem like the most obvious candidates.
Swanson, the No. 9 prospect in Seattle’s organization, has started in the No. 1 spot for Triple-A Tacoma this season. He was briefly called up last week, and made his MLB debut Thursday before he was sent back down Friday.
The 25-year-old right-hander tossed two innings in relief for Seattle, allowing two earned runs on three hits, while striking out four and walking two. In one start with Tacoma this season, Swanson pitched five shutout innings, allowing six hits, while striking out eight and walking none.
Sheffield, the Mariners’ top prospect, has labored through a pair of starts in Tacoma this season. The 22-year-old left-hander has compiled a 5.19 ERA in his two appearances, working 8 2/3 innings. He’s allowed six runs (five earned) on eight hits, while striking out three and walking eight. He’s also given up a pair of home runs.
Sheffield started Friday night’s game in Tacoma, and appears in the same spot in the Rainers’ rotation (fourth) as LeBlanc does in Seattle’s.
LeBlanc’s injury will not impact the plan the Mariners have for left-handed starter Yusei Kikuchi this season.
“We still want to stay with the plan with Yusei,” Servais said. “The goal is to get him through the season completely healthy and build upon that. That won’t change his plan.”
Kikuchi, who previously pitched in Japan, is still planned to pitch just one inning about every five starts to get his arm acclimated to the more frequent five-day rotation in the major leagues. In Japan, pitchers commonly make one start per week.
Kikuchi’s fifth start of the season is slated for Monday, though the Mariners have not made public during which start this plan will be carried out.
His MLB debut was during the Japan series against Oakland, giving him more time than usual to rest when the Mariners returned, and played two exhibition games before resuming regular-season play.
“When it comes to the point when we decide to give Yusei … an abbreviated start, we’ll have other pitchers to pick up the load,” Servais said. “There’s more than one or two pitchers in the minor leagues that we can call up, and we’ll find guys to step in and help out there, to make sure we stay with the plan.”
Servais believes the Mariners have the depth to carry out the Kikuchi plan, and address LeBlanc’s absence, however long it may be.
“You’ve got to stay healthy,” Servais said. “The injury thing — one day changes a lot of things, looking at your depth and how things are lined up in Triple-A. We certainly didn’t think anything was going to happen to LeBlanc, but it does happen. You always try to line it up.
“I think every year you plan on maybe using eight, nine, 10 different starters. One year here, I think we used like 17. I don’t want to get there, but you need depth, and you can never have enough.”
The Mariners used 13 starters during Servais’ first season in 2016, 17 in 2017 and 11 last season. The five regular starters — Marco Gonzales, Kikuchi, Mike Leake, LeBlanc and Felix Hernandez — have made the only starts for the Mariners so far this season.