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Gonzales to start Mariners' opener; Kikuchi in G2

Felix's streak of Opening Day starts ends at 10
@gregjohnsmlb
March 9, 2019

PEORIA, Ariz. -- For the first time since then-manager John McLaren tabbed Erik Bedard for the first game of 2008, the Mariners will have a different Opening Day starter than Felix Hernandez when they kick off their season on March 20 against the A’s in Japan. Left-hander Marco Gonzales, who

PEORIA, Ariz. -- For the first time since then-manager John McLaren tabbed Erik Bedard for the first game of 2008, the Mariners will have a different Opening Day starter than Felix Hernandez when they kick off their season on March 20 against the A’s in Japan.

Left-hander Marco Gonzales, who had a breakout campaign last year in his first full season in the rotation, will be first up on the hill in the Tokyo Dome in the Opening Series, manager Scott Servais announced Saturday.

“Certainly respect,” Servais said of Hernandez’s Opening Day streak. “It was a tremendous run, and he’s done awesome things. I just think where we’re at right now organizationally and where he’s at, he wants to have a big year and this does give him more time to prepare for his first regular-season start. But that doesn’t make it any easier. But again, we try to take as much of the emotion out of it as you can and do what’s best for our ballclub.”

Yusei Kikuchi, the Mariners’ prize Japanese free agent, will pitch the second game against Oakland on March 21. Both games will be at 2:35 a.m. PT, with the Mariners then returning to Seattle to play a pair of exhibition games against the Padres at newly named T-Mobile Park before resuming regular-season play with their home opener against the Red Sox on March 28.

The decision seemed apparent all spring as Hernandez, 32, is coming off the worst season in his 14-year Major League career, having gone 8-14 with a 5.55 ERA in 29 games (28 starts). But it’s a move that didn’t come easily for the Mariners as it snaps Hernandez’s run of 10 straight Opening Day starts, the longest active streak in the Majors and tied for fourth-longest streak all-time.

Jack Morris holds the record of 14 straight Opening Day starts, with Robin Roberts and Tom Seaver tied for second with 12. Hernandez is tied with Steve Carlton, Walter Johnson and Roy Halladay with 10 apiece.

Hernandez is one of just 14 pitchers to have started 11 or more openers overall, having also kicked off the season for Seattle in 2007 as a 20-year-old phenom before Bedard got the call the following year. Seaver holds that record with 16.

Gonzales was 13-9 with a 4.00 ERA in 29 starts last year for the Mariners, and he has pitched extremely well this spring until giving up 12 hits and nine runs in 3 2/3 innings in a 9-3 loss to the Cubs on Friday night.

The former Gonzaga University standout was a first-round Draft pick of the Cardinals in 2013 and was acquired by Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto in a trade for outfielder Tyler O’Neill in July 2017, less than a year after Gonzales had Tommy John surgery.

After Servais called Gonzales into his office to inform him of the decision, the first calls he made were to his wife and parents, who helped him through the 2016 season when he wondered if he’d ever pitch again after his elbow surgery.

“Those are the people that have seen me throughout this process,” Gonzales said. “My wife was there when I got the call that I had to have surgery and now she was there for the call that I’m going to be pitching the first game of the season. It’s emotional because the journey you go through, you look back and you could never write this any better.”

“Marco is excited,” Servais said. “He’s earned it. There’s nothing better than getting awarded for something you’ve actually earned. And he has.”

He’ll now head a rotation that will also include veterans Mike Leake and Wade LeBlanc, as well as Kikuchi and Hernandez.

With a six-day break between Tokyo and their home opener, the Mariners can reset their rotation once they return to Seattle. Hernandez and Leake will start the two exhibition games in Tokyo against the Yomiuri Giants prior to Opening Day, and Hernandez is also slated for an exhibition game against the Padres back in Seattle before getting his first turn on April 1 against the Angels at T-Mobile Park in the fifth game of the homestand.

But first comes Tokyo and the chance for Gonzales to make his first Opening Day start in very unique circumstances.

“I’ve never been to Japan,” he said. “I’ve never experienced a culture like that before. First and foremost, I’m just excited to get over there and witness that. I can’t even fathom walking out on the mound in the Tokyo Dome. That’s going to be a joy in itself. Just to be able to go out and set the tone for us in a game like this is what I’m most excited about.”

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.