SEATTLE -- A year ago, Marco Gonzales kicked off the season in Japan in the earliest Opening Day game in Major League history, pitching the Mariners past the A’s on March 20, the first official day of spring, in the Opening Series at the Tokyo Dome.
Now, Gonzales gets the ball again for a much different Opening Day -- the latest start to a season in MLB history due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as the Mariners and Astros face off Friday at 6:10 p.m. PT at Minute Maid Park.
But the 28-year-old southpaw isn’t worried about the calendar. He’s focused on the chance to get Seattle started on the right foot in this 60-game sprint.
“First and foremost, it's a huge honor,” he said of his second Opening Day selection. “One that I do not take lightly, given the responsibility to set the tone for the squad and for this season. Whether it be short, whether it be weird, I know one thing's for sure: I'm going to go out and compete to the best of my ability and do the best to set the right example for our guys and go win some ballgames.”
Gonzales will be the first pitcher to face the Astros since MLB’s investigation into sign-stealing allegations in the 2017 and ’18 seasons resulted in general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch being suspended and then fired last winter.
While Gonzales expressed disappointment in that situation back in February, he’s focused more now on the large task at hand in facing Astros ace Justin Verlander and a team that went 18-1 against Seattle last year en route to winning the American League West and advancing to the World Series before losing to the Nationals.
“I'm not going to put any more pressure on myself than I need to,” Gonzales said. “I’m going to go out and try to win a ballgame. I’m facing a good lineup in a spot where the World Series was played last year. That's enough pressure as it is, so I'm going to go out and just compete.”
That’s something Gonzales has done well in his two seasons as a Seattle starter, posting a 29-22 record and a 3.99 ERA in 63 starts. His numbers don’t rival Verlander, but he’ll battle and set the tone for a young Mariners club that will be an underdog all season in the AL West.
“The thing about Marco is he's a great competitor, whether he goes out there with his ‘A’ stuff that night and all of his pitches working or not,” said manager Scott Servais. “He's going to give you everything he's got.
“He’s going to give up a few hits. There's going to be traffic. But he keeps [us] in the game and gives us a chance. He’s coming off a great year last year. I love when he takes the mound. He really is such a great example for our guys.”
Hirano coming along slowly
Veteran reliever Yoshihisa Hirano can come off the injured list as soon as he’s ready to go, since there is no timeframe on players placed on the IL due to COVID-19 issues. But Servais indicated the 36-year-old isn’t close to being activated despite being cleared to join camp on Saturday.
“He’s just getting in here playing catch. He's not going on the mound yet,” Servais said. “When he was down with COVID, he was down. He was not able to do a whole lot of throwing or even work out a lot.
“Some of the guys, you can just kind of jump them right in as they had been throwing a lot of live BPs and other stuff on their own. He has not been doing that. So we're going to have to be careful on how we ramp him up.”
Graveman, homers highlight intrasquad outing
Kendall Graveman looked sharp again in his final intrasquad tuneup on Tuesday, as the 29-year-old right-hander allowed just one hit and one walk while striking out eight in four scoreless innings. He’ll make his Mariners debut Monday in Houston after a two-year recovery from Tommy John surgery.
“It’s going to be emotional for sure,” said Graveman, the A’s Opening Day starter in 2017 and '18. “This is the last tune-up. The hay is in the barn. Just thinking about it now, it’s special for me. I teared up when I made my first Arizona Rookie League [rehab] game almost a year ago to this date. It’s just fun to be out there able to compete. I’m blessed to get to go out and there and do it again.”
Tuesday’s 4 1/2-inning intrasquad game also featured home runs by rookies Evan White and Kyle Lewis, as well as a three-run shot by Jose Marmolejos as he makes a strong bid for a backup first base/outfield role. Lewis’ team-leading fourth homer of Summer Camp was an opposite-field blast off a 99-mph fastball from Dan Altavilla, just after White lined a 96-mph heater from Altavilla into the Mariners’ bullpen in left-center field.
Short takes from T-Mobile Park
• Catcher Tom Murphy was held out of Tuesday’s action to rest a bruised left foot that has hampered him since he got hit with a foul ball seven days ago, but Servais expects him to be fine by Friday’s opener.
“Murph is ready to go” Servais said. “ It's just a matter of trying to get that foot to calm down as best we can.”
• The Mariners are close to signing veteran right-handed reliever Bryan Shaw, according to sources, after the 32-year-old was placed on waivers last week by the Rockies. Shaw was one of MLB’s most durable relievers during a five-year run with the Indians from 2013-17, when he posted a 3.11 ERA in 378 outings and led the AL in appearances in three of those seasons.
But Shaw owned a 5.61 ERA in 131 outings the past two years in Colorado. The Rockies will be responsible for the bulk of his prorated $9 million contract -- which is about $3.3 million in the shortened season -- with the Mariners owing just the remaining prorated Major League minimum of about $200,000.
• The Mariners will wrap up their intrasquad outings on Wednesday with a 6:10 p.m. PT contest that will be televised by ROOT Sports and broadcasted on 710 ESPN Seattle radio. Rookies Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn will each start, and the game is expected to go nine innings as the final tune-up before Friday’s opener.