It wasn’t clear how long Mariners manager Scott Servais would hold out this spring. Typically, he doesn’t like to name an Opening Day starter until Cactus League games have begun and he has tangible results to back his decision. But all winter, it’s been decisively clear that Marco Gonzales would get the Game 1 nod -- and Servais didn’t let that linger beyond Day 5 of Spring Training.
On Sunday, Servais announced that the lefty would be on the hill for the 2021 regular-season opener on April 1 against the Giants at T-Mobile Park.
“Typically, you guys know I don't like to go out there too early. But I think this one's pretty easy to say. Marco has established himself,” Servais said from Peoria, Ariz. “He's the leader of our pitching staff.”
This will be Gonzales’ third consecutive Opening Day start, which in Mariners history puts him behind only Jamie Moyer (four), Randy Johnson (six) and Félix Hernández (11), whose streak was snapped in 2019 when Gonzales’ current run began. Gonzales is also one of just eight active pitchers to have started each of the past two openers, and he’s the first in 2021 to be formally announced with the nod.
Servais’ announcement was merely a formality. Gonzales has the longest tenure of any pitcher on the team, has performed at an All-Star-caliber level the past two seasons, is the bulldog of Seattle’s rotation, and most chiefly, he’s the Mariners’ best starter. The only other pitcher that might have even been in consideration is James Paxton, who rejoined the Mariners on a one-year deal on Thursday after spending 2013-18 with Seattle.
“I know we all know Pax in ways capable of doing and taking steps forward, but Marco is the guy who will step out the first day,” Servais said.
Coming off a 2020 season during which he went 7-2 with a 3.10 ERA and 136 ERA+, Gonzales led Seattle to a win in Tokyo over the A’s in his first opener in ’19, then he was dealt a loss in last year’s opener in Houston.
Since his Opening Day streak began, Gonzales has also quietly blossomed into one of the most effective pitchers in the American League. In this stretch, he ranks seventh with 9.1 wins above replacement, per FanGraphs, his 3.85 ERA is tied for fifth best and his 36 wins trail only Gerrit Cole (42) and Justin Verlander (38). In the shortened 2020 season, Gonzales was one of four pitchers in the AL to rank in the top 10 in wins (seven), innings (69 2/3) and ERA (3.10), and he led the AL with 0.90 walks per nine innings and the Majors with 9.14 strikeouts per walk.
Starting on Opening Day is a milestone any pitcher aspires to, and that carries just as much weight for Gonzales, the only Mariner who resides in Seattle year-round and the face of the pitching staff for the present and long term. Not counting Paxton, who spent the past two seasons with the Yankees, Gonzales is one of just three holdovers from before the Mariners began their rebuild during the 2018 offseason, along with third baseman Kyle Seager and right fielder Mitch Haniger.
Last offseason, Gonzales signed a four-year, $30 million extension with a club option for 2025 that begins this year, with the intent of seeing Seattle through its transition. He just turned 29 on Tuesday, but he’s seized the role as the unquestioned leader of the club's pitching staff.
“I think the job of the leader you think you have a lot of jobs,” Gonzales said in January. “I think that you're in charge of your responsibility of defining what the culture of the team is. I think that the character, the common goal of the team, the direction, the spearhead, you're in charge of where we go as a group. You're in charge of defining what it means to be part of this team. Setting expectations for your teammates, and holding them accountable, holding myself accountable, first off. I think it starts with that.”
And in 2021, when the Mariners and Gonzales hope to improve upon a third-place finish in the AL West, it quite literally begins with his start on Opening Day.