Who knew that bald eagles prefer to nest in a Big Maple?
That’s what happened Thursday before the Mariners played at Minnesota in the Twins’ home opener.
M’s starter James Paxton, whose nickname is Big Maple for his 6-foot-4 frame and Canadian heritage, was standing in left field as the American national anthem was being played when a bald eagle, brought in for a ceremonial flight over Target Field, mistook the left-hander for his handler.
“I guess the eagle knew I was Canadian. I don’t know. But it came for me,” Paxton said.
The eagle, named Challenger, first buzzed by Paxton before landing about 10 feet in front of him. The bird then flew at Paxton, who bent over at the waist. The landing spot was Paxton’s back and then onto his right shoulder.
“Figured I’m not going to outrun an eagle,” Paxton said. “So might as well see what happens.”
One of the eagle’s trainers ran out to left field to lure away the bird.
Paxton, whose jersey appeared to be torn, resumed his warmup after the anthem.
“The talons, I don’t think, punctured me. They were kind of sharp on my back,” Paxton said. “It was not the first time I’ve seen a bald eagle. But it’s the first time I had one try to land on me. That was interesting. It was coming right for me. I’m like, ‘The (handler) guy is over there and I’m not eagle guy.’ But I guess this eagle just got confused.”
Manager Scott Servais said he was thankful Paxton remained calm and didn’t get hurt.
“I think Felix (Hernandez) would have probably ran away screaming,” Servais said.
The Mariners couldn’t make it through the first week of the season unscathed.
Starting catcher Mike Zunino suffered a strained left oblique taking batting practice the day before the season opener and was placed on the 10-day disabled list.
And last weekend, designated hitter Nelson Cruz twisted his ankle after hitting a two-run homer, slipping on the dugout steps after rounding the bases. The 37-year-old Cruz also was sent to the DL.
“When I heard that, I wanted to throw up,” Servais said. “I really don’t know any other way to put it. Our club has just battled through a bunch of nagging injuries in spring training and early in the season.”
The additon of speedy Dee Gordon has sparked the offense – especially in the first inning. The Gold Glove-winning second baseman turned center fielder is batting .429 in the first as the M’s scored eight of their first 21 runs this season in that inning.
Seattle’s Nos. 1-4 batters in the lineup combined to hit .351 through Saturday, compared to .213 for the rest of the order. The return of Cruz and Zunino should boost the back half, not only with the catcher’s bat but also with Mitch Haniger moving back to No. 6 after filling in for Cruz in the cleanup spot.
Former Gonzaga University standout Marco Gonzales is scheduled to make his second start of the season Sunday when the Mariners conclude a three-game series in Minnesota.
The left-hander, who beat San Francisco in his first start, seems to be at full strength after undergoing Tommy John surgery for a torn ulnar collateral ligament that limited him to one major-league appearance in 2015 and kept him sidelined for all of 2016.
“It’s night and day different for me (from 2017),” Gonzales told the Tacoma News Tribune, referring to his recovery a year ago while a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. “It’s a beautiful thing to have a healthy arm and it’s a beautiful thing to have an opportunity like this.”
Gonzales, a former first-round draft pick, had a strong spring, going 1-1 with a 2.08 ERA in seven starts in the Cactus League.
“We knew that last year was his first full year and now it’s his second full year off (surgery),” Servais said. “Now he’s got all of his weapons and he’s attacking hitters a little differently than we saw last year.”
On the farm
MLB.com came out with a list of the biggest breakout prospect for each A.L. West team last week.
Its Seattle selection is familiar to Spokane fans.
Reliever Wyatt Mills (Gonzaga Prep), who had a 1.79 ERA and 12 saves last season as a senior at GU and is second in Zags history with 21 saves, got the nod.
The story called him a “side-armed right-hander with two above-average pitches.
“Mills pairs a low-90s fastball that touches 95 mph with a tight slider. The combination makes him highly effective against (right-handed) hitters, and he’s already impressed Mariners club officials with his ability to throw strikes from his unique (arm) slot.”
Mills, a third-round pick last June, started this season with Modesto of the Class A California League. He got a save in his first appearance with the Nuts.
Yes, Major League Baseball is trying to work more off days into the schedule. But having three in the first nine days of the season?
And what about avoiding cold-weather cities in the opening weeks? Provided there isn’t a snowout Sunday, there’s a chance the M’s and Twins could play the coldest game on record in MLB history. The current mark is a first-pitch temperature of 23 degrees when Colorado hosted Atlanta in 2013.
Servais said the heated benches and hot air blowers at Target Field will help.
“Mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it shouldn’t matter,” he said.
The Mariners travel to balmy Kansas City (where high temperatures are forecast in the 50s) for a three-game series starting Monday. After yet another off day, they return home for a seven-game homestand, beginning Friday, against A.L. West rivals Oakland and Houston.
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