Out of Right Field: Ex-GU standout Marco Gonzales earns Opening Day start for Mariners
March 17, 2019 Updated Mon., March 18, 2019 at 1:26 p.m.
Here’s the thing about working in a newsroom: Every night is Trivia Night.
It might start with the copy desk guessing the age of a celebrity who will be included in The Birthday Bunch on page 4 in the next day’s paper (we follow “The Price is Right” rules, so the winner is the closest without going over).
Maybe there’s something in the Associated Press’ Today in History file that provides intrigue, like the date Spokane’s own Tom Foley became Speaker of the House (for the record, it was June 6, 1989).
But mainly, it’s about sports.
And at this time of year, it’s a safe bet between Gonzaga basketball or the upcoming Major League Baseball season.
The other night, this question was posed after deadline: Can you name every pitcher who has started on Opening Day for the Mariners? (Answer below.)
Some in the office weren’t born in 1977 when Diego Segui started the Mariners’ inaugural game in the Kingdome, a 7-0 loss to the then-California Angels. (Bonus points if you know Segui also pitched for the one-and-done Seattle Pilots in 1969).
There have been 15 pitchers who have started a season opener for the Mariners in their first 42 seasons, with former Gonzaga University standout Marco Gonzales scheduled to become No. 16 on that list when the M’s begin their season against the Oakland Athletics this week in Japan (first pitch is scheduled for 2:35 a.m. our time Wednesday … yes, A.M.).
That Gonzales got the nod over Felix Hernandez, who started 11 of the previous 12 openers and the past 10 in a row, says quite a bit about the young left-hander, who went 13-9 with a 4.00 earned-run average in 29 starts last season.
It also says a lot about “King Felix” and the state of the franchise.
Although Hernandez, a six-time All-Star and the American League’s Cy Young Award winner in 2010, won’t turn 33 until April 8, his career – at least with the Mariners – is effectively over. After going 8-14 with a 5.55 ERA last season, he enters the final year of a contract that will pay him $27 million as the team’s No. 5 starter.
With the Mariners unlikely to overcome the Houston Astros in the next couple of seasons and therefore, at best, struggling to snag a wild-card playoff berth, general manager Jerry Dipoto instituted his “step back” plan in the offseason. Dipoto dealt the likes of Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, Jean Segura, Mike Zunino and James Paxton and let Nelson Cruz walk as a free agent in an effort to replenish the farm system and make a run at contending in the 2020s. If Hernandez had an ounce of trade value, he would’ve been gone, too.
“I respect that Felix has taken the ball on Opening Day for 10 years in a row,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said a week ago when announcing Gonzales would be the No. 1 starter. “It’s been a tremendous run and he’s done awesome things, but I just think where we are organizationally … 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, the 19th overall selection by St. Louis in the 2013 MLB draft, pitched in six playoff games the next season as the Cardinals reached the National League Championship Series.
An elbow injury in 2015 that required Tommy John surgery derailed his career; he was acquired by Dipoto in a July 2017 trade for minor-league slugger Tyler O’Neill.
Gonzales is the type of player the Mariners want to build around: Young, talented and a tireless worker.
“He’s earned it,” Servais said of the Opening Day start. “I think there’s nothing better when you actually get awarded something that you’ve actually earned, and he has.”
Gonzales might have been the second-most surprised person in the clubhouse when he got the news about the Opening Day start from his manager.
“I think my exact words were, ‘Holy …” well, you know,” he told the Seattle Times, showing off his Jesuit education. “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 first people Gonzales called with the news were his wife and his parents.
“My wife was there when I got the call that I would have surgery, and now she has the call that I am going to be pitching the first game of the season,” Gonzales said, choking back tears. “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.”
The Mariners hope this season is a small step back. And perhaps it’s one giant leap for Gonzales.
The 15 pitchers who have previously started for the M’s on Opening Day (with years in parentheses) are: Diego Segui (1977); Glenn Abbott (1978-79, 1981); Mike Parrott (1980); Floyd Bannister (1982); Gaylord Perry (1983); Mike Moore (1984-86); Mark Langston (1987-89); Brian Holman (1990); Erik Hanson (1991); Randy Johnson (1992-96, 1998); Jeff Fassero (1997, 1999); Jamie Moyer (2000, 2004-06); Freddy Garcia (2001-03); Erik Bedard (2008); and Felix Hernandez (2007, 2009-2018).
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