PEORIA, Ariz. — For the first time since the forgettable 2008 season, Felix Hernandez won’t throw the first official pitch of the season for the Seattle Mariners.
That honor belongs to the pitcher that the Mariners believe will be a major part of their future success as general manager Jerry Dipoto’s “step back” plan unfolds.
On Saturday, manager Scott Servais announced that Marco Gonzales, not Hernandez, will start on Opening Day at the Tokyo Dome on March 20 vs. the Oakland A’s.
“I respect that Felix taken the ball on Opening Day for 10 years in a row,” Servais said. “It’s been a tremendous run and he’s done awesome things, but I just think where we are at organizationally and where he’s at — he wants to have a big year — this does give him more time to prepare for his first regular-season start, but it doesn’t make it any easier. It really doesn’t. But you try to take as much of the emotion out of it as you can and do what’s best for our ballclub. I think it’s what’s best for where we are at right now.”
Gonzales posted a 13-9 record with a 4.00 ERA in 29 starts in 2019. But beyond his breakout season, he’s the type of player that the Mariners want to build around in their step back. He’s young, talented, committed to improvement and a tireless worker.
“He’s earned it,” Servais said. “I think there’s nothing better when you actually get awarded something that you’ve actually earned and he has.”
Gonzales was stunned when Servais delivered the news.
“I think my exact words were ‘Holy …’ well, you know,” he said, pausing to avoid using an expletive. “And I just kind of went into a blur and didn’t really know how to handle that. I’m working on that. And I’m working to prepare myself for it.”
The Mariners will start left-hander Yusei Kikuchi in the second game of the series. Kikuchi will be the first Japanese-born player to make his Major League Baseball debut in Japan.
“That’s awesome,” Servais said. “I asked him if he was OK pitching in Japan, and he said, ‘yeah.’ He’s excited. I don’t know how many tickets he’s going to have to leave, but I’m sure there will be plenty for his family and friends to come and see him.”
The A’s also announced their starters for the series: Mike Fiers will start the Game 1 of the series and Marco Estrada will pitch Game 2.
For Gonzales, it’s been a winding journey to get to be an Opening-Day starter. Just over two years ago his season was over before it started because of surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow while pitching with the Cardinals. He’s battled through rehab, returned to pitching, was traded to the Mariners and had a breakout season in 2018.
“It’s emotional in a sense just because through the steps along the way,” he said. “Not a lot of people see the baby steps you take after surgery and just the path that you have to follow after all of that comes to you. I could have never imagined this would happen. When you are in a place where you don’t know if you are going to be able to pitch again, to be able to come back, I am very, very grateful.”
It’s why Gonzales called his wife and his parents immediately after the meeting with Servais.
“My wife was there when I got the call that I would have to have surgery, and now she has the call that I am going to be pitching the first game of the season,” he said with voice breaking and tears starting to accumulate at the corners of his eyes. “Those are the things that, it’s emotional. The journey that you go on and you look back, you could never write this any better, honestly.”
Hernandez will still pitch in Japan. He and Mike Leake will start the two exhibition games versus the Yomiuri Giants on March 17-18 while Wade LeBlanc will be available to pitch in relief. Hernandez wasn’t in the clubhouse when it was open to media, but he certainly won’t be pleased about seeing his streak come to an end. It’s something that he took great pride in. But going into spring training, sources in the organization doubted that Servais would have Hernandez start on Opening Day. The current regime of Servais and Dipoto don’t have the history with Hernandez and weren’t a part of his past success.
Hernandez made his first start on Opening Day in 2007. The next year, then-manager John McLaren decided to start left-hander Erik Bedard on Opening Day. Bedard wasn’t prepared for the hype and the attention surrounding Opening Day, and it held no special meaning to him. But Hernandez was incensed at the snub and was more frustrated that McLaren didn’t tell him personally instead finding out from the media.
Hernandez returned to being the Opening-Day starter in 2009 and has been ever since. He is one of 14 pitchers in MLB history to make 11 Opening-Day starts. Tom Seaver has the most with 16. In 11 Opening-Day starts, Hernandez is 7-2 with a 1.52 ERA and 78 strikeouts. He’s allowed one run or fewer in six of them.
But Hernandez is coming off his worst season as a professional, going 8-14 with a 5.55 ERA while earning a brief demotion to the bullpen. He’s in the final year of his contract and likely his final year with the organization.
“I had a chance to meet with all of our starters yesterday,” Servais said. “It’s really clunky. It’s a crazy schedule. You are talking about playing four games in a matter of 12 days. It’s a challenge.”
When the Mariners return from Japan, the early plan, which is subject change, would be to slot out the rotation in this way:
* March 28 vs. Red Sox — Gonzales
* March 29 vs. Red Sox — Kikuchi
* March 30 vs. Red Sox — Mike Leake
* March 31 vs. Red Sox — LeBlanc
* April 1 vs. Angels — Hernandez
With three lefties in the rotation, the Mariners will have to have left-handers pitch in back-to-back starts. They are opting to go with Gonzales and Kikuchi going back-to-back because they aren’t as similar.