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Big Unit back at Safeco

Johnson throwing first pitch at opener

Ryan Rowland-Smith will start today against Oakland in the Mariners’ home opener. (Associated Press)
Ryan Rowland-Smith will start today against Oakland in the Mariners’ home opener. (Associated Press)
By Associated Press

SEATTLE – Recently retired Mariners star Randy Johnson is throwing out the ceremonial first pitch today before Seattle’s home opener.

The way this season has already gone, the Mariners may ask the Big Unit to stay on the mound for the game.

As of Sunday’s start by Ian Snell, when the fill-in No. 2 starter allowed five runs in the first two innings at Texas, Seattle had yet to win without Felix Hernandez starting. Co-ace Cliff Lee remains out with an abdominal strain, though he did take another step to a return perhaps by month’s end with a successful bullpen session Sunday.

Ryan Rowland-Smith starts the Mariners’ 34th home opener, against the same Oakland Athletics who had eight hits and four runs off him in five innings last week.

And no matter who has been pitching, Seattle’s biggest preseason fear – that no one will be able to consistently bring home Ichiro Suzuki and Chone Figgins once they get on base atop the order – has already been realized. The Mariners scored just 15 runs in their first five games, four of them losses.

“We’re trying to figure out how to score some runs,” one of the only productive hitters, Franklin Gutierrez, said before he replaced the 1-for-21 Milton Bradley as the cleanup hitter for Sunday’s road-trip finale. “We’re having a tough time right now.”

Yes, it’s been a rocky start. The trendy pick to win the A.L. West has already had a four-game losing streak before playing its first home game.

Yet one final sling from the giant, 46-year-old Johnson’s left arm in front of a chilled, packed house today will bring back memories of the Mariners’ playoff series he led them into in 1995 and ’97.

Johnson is making his first return to Seattle since he retired in January – after 22 seasons, 303 wins, 4,875 strikeouts and one World Series co-MVP while playing for the Expos, Mariners, Astros, Diamondbacks, Yankees and Giants. The 6-foot-10 menace scowled his way to the 1995 A.L. Cy Young Award with the Mariners, the wondrous season that helped revive baseball in Seattle with a miraculous rally into the franchise’s first postseason.

Five of Johnson’s 10 All-Star selections came while with the Mariners. Johnson was 130-74 in 10 years with Seattle – his most wins among any of his six teams – before he was traded to Houston midway through 1998 because of a contract dispute.

The ill will from that spat has obviously dissipated with time. Soon after Johnson announced his retirement in January, longtime Mariners president Chuck Armstrong was on the phone inviting Johnson to today’s opener. Johnson immediately and eagerly accepted.

Johnson is Seattle’s career leader in shutouts (19), strikeouts (2,162) and walks (884). He is second to Jamie Moyer in wins (130), starts (266) and innings (1,838 1/3 ).

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