Manager Scott Servais not ready to name Mariners’ opening day starting pitcher

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Mariners manager Scott Servais’ final sentence on just how well Marco Gonzales had pitched in Tuesday’s Cactus League game vs. the Rangers didn’t raise attention in the moment.

“Really outstanding outing by Marco today,” Servais said. “I thought he was really, really sharp. He didn’t have his change-up in the first couple of innings. But he found it in the third inning. Good command of his fastball and cutter. He’s moving in the right direction and getting ready to open this thing up in a couple of weeks.”

With the postgame music blaring and other questions being asked in the brief media session, that answer wasn’t followed up on. However, listening to the interview again, one little snippet became more interesting: “He’s moving in the right direction and getting ready to open this thing up in a couple of weeks.”

Did Servais tip his hand on the opening day starter?

He realized what he’d done about a half-hour later.

“I’m in the shower yesterday after the game and I was like, somebody is going to say that I said this,” he said.

Well, it didn’t generate any stories postgame, but it was the first thing asked to him in his morning media session Wednesday morning. Servais was ready for the question and prepared to not give a definitive answer on Gonzales being the opening day starter in Tokyo on March 20 vs. the A’s.

“No, we’re not,” Servais said. “He’s getting ready for his first start of the season. We’re getting closer, obviously. We’ll let the guys know when we get a little closer and then let you guys know where that’s at. I thought about it while I was in the shower, that somebody would catch this.”

If Servais were to name Gonzales the starter, it would be the first time since 2008 Felix Hernandez didn’t take the ball in the first game of the season. Hernandez has started 11 of opening days in his career, including the last 10 in a row. He’s posted a 7-2 record with a 1.52 ERA and 78 strikeouts in those outings.

There was some debate among fans and the Mariners coaching staff last season whether Hernandez deserved to start on opening day. Ultimately, coaches decided to go with Hernandez over James Paxton. Sources indicated the honor of starting on opening day meant much more to Hernandez than it did to Paxton and the team didn’t want to give Hernandez reasons to be upset or cause an issue. Hernandez cares greatly about his streak of opening day starts and it’s a source of pride despite being just one of 162 games in a season.

But Hernandez enters 2019 in the final season of his 7-year, $175 million contract. It’s also expected to be his final year with the organization. He doesn’t have the close relationship with Servais or general manager Jerry Dipoto, who have never seen him pitch consistently at the level of the King Felix days. He’s also coming off his worst season in the big leagues, posting an 8-14 record and 5.55 ERA in 28 starts and one relief appearance.

Meanwhile, Gonzales has been promoted as one of the foundational pieces of the Mariners’ new step-back plan for the future. They view him as the type of pitcher and person they want to build around. He had a breakout season in 2018, posting a 13-9 record with at 4.00 ERA in 29 starts.

The Mariners could hedge the situation by starting Gonzales in Tokyo followed by lefty Yusei Kikuchi in the second of the game series and then allow Hernandez to start the home opener March 28 vs. the Red Sox when their season resumes. Servais has said he isn’t necessarily committed to having the same starter for opening day and the home opener, but didn’t rule out the possibility.

Servais has yet to start lining up guys for those games in Japan.

“We have so much flexibility with the days off, the travel, the exhibition games, things like that. As much of a challenge as it is this spring to kind of line it up, we still have a ton of flexibility,” he said. “The big thing is to keep all five healthy and keep everybody in play, understanding that we play two exhibition games there. That will be an opportunity for two of the starters to go deep into that game and get their pitches in and get them ready for their next turn. It’s almost like multiple Opening Days. We’ll line it up. We’ll just be fine.”

Dings and dents

First baseman Ryon Healy was a late scratch from the starting lineup for Wednesday’s game in Goodyear, Ariz., vs. the Reds. Healy is dealing with minor tightness in his hamstring and the Marines held him out as a precaution.

“It’s nothing big,” Servais said. “There’s a good chance he’ll be back in there tomorrow.”

Fellow first baseman Joey Curletta has yet to play a Cactus League game this spring due to injury. Servais confirmed Curletta suffered an oblique injury that has kept him out.

“Joey’s disappointed,” Servais said. “He was the Texas League player of the year last season and had a really nice season for us. He’s feeling better, and hopefully we can get him into a game in the next week or so. But he has been a little sore.”

Curletta, 24, was also the Mariners minor-league hitter of the year. He posted a .282/.383/.482 slash line with 24 doubles, 23 home runs and 94 RBI in 129 games with AA Arkansas. He was eligible to be a six-year free agent after last season, but the Mariners re-signed him and invited him to MLB camp this year.

Also ...

The Mariners will start Justus Sheffield on Friday in their Cactus League game vs. the Milwaukee Brewers at Peoria Stadium. That turn in the rotation belonged to lefty Wade LeBlanc. But he will also pitch on Friday. The Mariners will play a “B” game on their practice fields at 10 a.m. vs. the NC Dinos, a professional team out of South Korea. Several of the Mariners top younger prospects are expected to appear in that game.

Servais confirmed the Mariners will bring more than the 28 players allowed on their active roster for the two games in Japan. With the two exhibition games and the possibility of injury, he wants to have some players there if needed.

“We’ll take a couple extra, just in case,” he said. “If you have an injury in an exhibition game or something like that, it’s tough to make the trip there. It’s easy from Tacoma to Seattle, but Seattle to Tokyo could get a little challenging. So we’ll have a couple extra guys there.”

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