It's official: Ray to start Mariners' Opening Day

Gonzales in line for home opener; fifth starter spot still undecided

April 6th, 2022

PEORIA, Ariz. -- The Mariners on Thursday made official what was long expected, formally announcing that Robbie Ray, their prized free-agent acquisition over the offseason, will be their Opening Day starter.

Ray will square off against Twins rookie Joe Ryan for the 1:10 p.m. PT contest Friday at Target Field in Minnesota. He becomes the Mariners’ 16th different Opening Day starter, and it’s the first time he’s received the assignment in his nine-year career.

“For me, it's just the thought of setting the tone for the season,” Ray said. “I think it's an important game, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Following Ray in the four-game series will be Logan Gilbert, Marco Gonzales and Chris Flexen, with whoever wins the No. 5 spot slated for the club’s fifth game of the year in Chicago against the White Sox. Top prospects Matt Brash and George Kirby have been vying for that role -- and wowing with how big league ready their stuff looks.

This rollout will also allow Gonzales to pitch Seattle’s home opener at T-Mobile Park on Friday, April 15, against the Astros, which in itself carries significance. Beyond what will almost assuredly be a sellout, Houston is the defending division and league champion, and a rival that the Mariners are hoping to supplant in the AL West this season. There should also be a carryover of anticipation following sellouts in Seattle’s final weekend last year, when the Mariners remained in postseason contention all the way to the final day of the season.

In that context, there’s consolation for Gonzales, who took great pride in his three consecutive years as the Mariners’ Opening Day starter and who has relished pitching in Seattle, where his wife is from and where he is one of the few Mariners to reside year-round.

“I hope it's going to be as electric as our last home series was last year,” Gonzales said. “I think we all have that kind of expectation. I know, certainly, we're excited to get back and play in front of our fans.”

Given how condensed this spring schedule has been, limiting starters to no more than four outings, there wasn’t much wiggle room to adjust the rotation order. So, in that vein, Thursday’s announcement was expected. But Mariners manager Scott Servais had held out on the formality until he spoke with each pitcher, especially Gonzales, about the Opening Day plans.

“It was great, no issues,” Servais said. “He very simply said, 'Hey man, I just want to win and I’ll be ready to go when you give me the ball.' I think it's perfect that it’ll line up with him for our home opener.”

Said Gonzales, “I'm not hanging my hat on the success of my season on getting an Opening Day start. It’s been a huge honor, and I haven't taken that for granted. But I mean, whoever gets the ball, we have -- like I told Skip -- we potentially have five guys who could leave this rotation at any time. So, we're going to go through with that mentality for sure.”

Months after winning the American League Cy Young Award after a stellar season with Toronto, Ray signed a five-year, $115 million contract in December, Seattle’s richest since president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto arrived in the 2015-16 offseason. Beyond the symbolic significance of the Opening Day assignment, Ray has already had a leading presence in camp with his young teammates, and he seems genuine in his desire to mentor.

He speaks of the importance of giving back, citing his early 20s in Detroit spent learning from Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, and later his time in Arizona, with Zack Greinke.

“Coming up my first few times in big league camp, it was just watching, listening, trying to soak in everything you can,” Ray said, “because there's guys in my clubhouse that I was in Detroit [with] that were absolute legends, so you just try to soak in everything you can.”

Ray threw 78 pitches in his most recent outing, on Monday, and is slated for 85-90 in his final Cactus League start on Saturday against the Brewers. That should put him in line for 100 on Opening Day, where the early forecast calls for a high of 43 degrees and snow flurries that morning in the Twin Cities. But Ray, who lives in Michigan in the offseason, said, “I’m kind of used to the cold weather.”

And now to the real question -- will he pitch sleeveless in those trademark tight pants?

“Oh, yeah,” Ray said.