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Mariners announce Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi will start two games vs. Oakland in Japan

UPDATED: Sat., March 9, 2019, 10:28 p.m.

Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Marco Gonzales throws against the Chicago White Sox during the fifth inning  on July 22, 2018, in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Marco Gonzales throws against the Chicago White Sox during the fifth inning on July 22, 2018, in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

PEORIA, Ariz. – For the first time since the forgettable 2008 season, Felix Hernandez won’t throw the first official pitch of a Mariners season.

That honor now belongs to the pitcher who the Mariners believe will be a major part of their future success as the transition of general manager Jerry Dipoto’s “step back” plan has been put in place.

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 has 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 ball club. I think it’s what’s best for where we are at right now.”

Gonzales, a former Gonzaga standout, posted a 13-9 record with a 4.00 earned-run average in 29 starts in 2018. But beyond his breakout season, he’s the type of player 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,” Gonzales 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 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 long and winding journey to becoming an opening day starter. Just more than two years ago, his season was over before it started because of surgery to repair torn ulnar collateral ligament in his while pitching with the Cardinals. Since then, he’s battled through rehab, returned to pitching in game, 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, voice breaking and tears accumulating 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 in Tokyo vs. the Yomiuri Giants, 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 in which he took great pride. 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 general manager Jerry 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 made the decision to start left-hander Erik Bedard on opening day in 2008.

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 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 had been since. He is one of 14 pitches 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 of 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 to 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 start left-handers back-to-back. They’re opting to go with Gonzales and Kikuchi back-to-back, because they aren’t as similar.

Seager to see hand specialist

Third baseman Kyle Seager will see a hand specialist after rolling his left wrist during a spring training game.

Seager was pulled Friday night after jamming his glove into the ground diving for a hard grounder by the Chicago Cubs’ Javier Baez.

Seager said postgame he was fine, and the Mariners’ former All-Star and Gold Glove winner didn’t seek medical treatment Friday night. That changed Saturday, when Seager was sent for X-rays and had the hand heavily wrapped. The X-rays were negative.

Dodgers 2, Mariners 0: Enrique Hernandez hit two home runs and Kenta Maeda worked three no-hit innings Saturday as Los Angeles blanked Seattle in Glendale, Arizona. Closer Kenley Jansen pitched the ninth.

Dodgers newcomer Joe Kelly threw a 30-minute bullpen session after recovering from the stiff back that kept him sidelined for three days of workouts. Kelly’s back stiffened after five hours on his feet preparing a crawfish boil for a team dinner.

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