PEORIA, Ariz. – It’s never wise to read too much into early Spring Training results, but Marco Gonzales certainly has looked like the pitcher the Mariners are willing to build their young rotation around with a strong three-inning start in Tuesday’s 4-4 tie with the Rangers at Peoria Stadium.
The 27-year-old southpaw allowed just a lone single and one walk in a scoreless outing that certainly didn’t hurt his chances of earning an Opening Day start when Seattle travels to Japan next month to face the A’s.
Mariners manager Scott Servais has yet to officially announce his regular-season rotation, but with James Paxton traded to the Yankees and longtime ace Felix Hernandez coming off the worst season of his career, Gonzales appears a logical choice.
“Really outstanding outing by Marco today,” said Servais. “I thought he was really, really sharp. He didn’t have his changeup the first couple innings, but found it there in the third. But good command of the fastball, good cutter, got all his pitches in. So he’s moving in the right direction and getting ready to open this thing up in a few weeks.”
Gonzales’ opening outing last Thursday against the A's was limited to one perfect inning when rain washed out the rest of his game, so he was pleased with Tuesday’s outing and figures to build to 55-60 pitches in his next start, which likely will be Sunday against the D-backs.
“I try to get in there and get out, not throw too many pitches,” Gonzales said. “Throw a lot of strikes. That’s what I’m going for. There’s still a lot of work to do. Nitpicking, I can do a better job of locating my fastball, didn’t find my changeup until the third inning.
“But with that, I think there was a lot of things I showed to get away with those kind of things. My cutter and curveball were really good today and a couple good sinkers, too.”
Servais likes the way that Gonzales is handling himself this spring after going 13-9 with a 4.00 ERA last year in his first full season as a starter.
“Marco has a lot of confidence,” Servais said. “He’s making good adjustments on the mound. I’m really happy with what we’ve seen from him this spring.”
Young guns continue to shine
The Mariners tied Tuesday’s game with back-to-back homers in the bottom of the ninth, including a two-run blast by Jake Fraley, their No. 14-ranked prospect per MLB Pipeline who was acquired from the Rays as part of the Mike Zunino trade.
Chris Mariscal, one of several players pulled over from Minor League camp to fill out the roster, followed with a solo shot.
“The young guys are taking advantage of it,” Servais said. “Fraley’s got big power. We’ve seen it. He made some swing adjustments in his game over the last couple years. He’s a different player now then when he came out of college [at LSU] and it’s a credit to him. He’s made improvements and will continue to get a chance to show us what he can do here in camp.”
Late duty for Ichiro
It’s not often you see a future Hall of Famer getting late-inning at-bats in an early Cactus League game, but Ichiro Suzuki wanted extra work and played the final four frames at designated hitter. The 45-year-old flew out to the warning track in the fifth and popped out in the eighth.
Servais said Ichiro will be in the starting lineup in Wednesday’s game against the Indians.
Ichiro is 1-for-5 with two RBIs, a walk and a stolen base in three appearances so far this spring as he works to get on the roster for the opening series against the A's in Tokyo.
Smith waiting for doctor’s clearance
Mariners center fielder Mallex Smith won’t be cleared to begin hitting or throwing until his strained right elbow is checked out by a doctor early next week, which makes it unlikely the newly acquired speedster will be available for the Opening Series in Toyo on March 20-21.
“They just want to make sure everything is OK with me first before I get clearance to participate in any activities,” Smith said. “We’re just doing it right, right now, while we’ve got the time. This is Spring Training for everybody to get themselves right. I’m doing the same.”
Smith’s work for now is limited to catching fly balls and he’s anxious to get going with the rest of his club, having been acquired from the Rays to fill the leadoff role and be part of the new young nucleus. As it stands now, though, the Mariners likely will need to shift Mitch Haniger over to center field for the first two games in Japan to give Smith an extra week to get ready before the home opener on March 28 against Boston.
That decision won’t come until Smith is cleared to start working out and his progress can be judged, but the clock is ticking with the Mariners departing for Japan on March 14.
“We’ll see,” Servais said. “It would be a little bit of a stretch to think we’d fire him out there with just a handful of games under his belt. Those two games coming as early as they are, they’re important, I don’t want to disregard that, but I don’t want to take a step back and not have him ready when we get home. So we’ll have to balance that, the risk versus reward.”
Kikuchi’s debut drawing rave reviews
Yusei Kikuchi’s two-inning start on Monday drew a lot of attention across the Majors, and among those impressed was countrymate Yu Darvish, who is returning this spring from elbow surgery in Cubs camp in Mesa.
“I watched the video,” said Darvish, a four-time All-Star in his six years in MLB. “He's really good. My first year, I couldn't throw strikes with the dry ball. But he really adjusted. He's one of a kind."
Kikuchi gave up a pair of unearned runs in the outing thanks to a pair of Seattle errors, along with a walk and single, but he worked through that damage while showing a 92-95 mph fastball and quality breaking pitches.
“We didn’t play great defense behind him and he kept it together,” Servais said. “He just kept throwing strikes. That’s the thing with Yusei we really like. It’s easy to say, but all of the sudden we make a few errors behind him and you start thinking, ‘Ok, I have to strike this guy out or now I have to start picking.’ But he just kept pumping them in there. That’s probably what I was most impressed by.”
Right-hander Mike Leake gets his second start of the spring in Wednesday’s 12:05 p.m. PT game against the Indians in Goodyear. Closing candidate Hunter Strickland, hard-throwing prospect Gerson Bautista and Rule 5 Draft pick Brandon Brennan are among the relievers slated to throw in the non-televised game.
Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.