Opening Day is a celebratory time for baseball fans. It’s when a long winter gives way to spring and the familiar crack of balls ricocheting off wooden bats.
The atmosphere promises to be even more jubilant than usual for Seattle Mariners fans, for whom the return of baseball is coupled with the excitement of Japanese fans eager to cheer on Ichiro Suzuki, who is slated to be in the lineup when the Mariners and Oakland Athletics start the season on Wednesday at Tokyo Dome.
Amid all this, Seattle pitcher Marco Gonzales will try to treat the first Opening Day start of his career like just another game.
“To me, once I take the mound, it’s all the same,” Gonzales said. “I’m just going to try to focus and go do what I do, not trying to think too much of it and just try to go prepare for another game.”
That said, Gonzales is well aware of the meaning of getting the chance to start the season for his club. Entering his fifth MLB season, the lefty will be the first pitcher not named Felix Hernandez to get the nod for Seattle in the opener since Erik Bedard in 2008.
“It’s special, it means a lot,” Gonzales said. “I think it means a lot to my family and the people who have supported me throughout my career, my life. I’m just excited to go out and hopefully win us a ballgame, win the first one.”
Seattle manager Scott Servais announced the pitching assignments on March 9, opting to use Gonzales in the first game and Japanese newcomer Yusei Kikuchi in the second. On Monday, he said Gonzales was the natural choice.
“Certainly coming into spring training, looking at how guys performed last year, Marco had an outstanding season for us, really had a step-out season,” Servais said. “Once he got rolling in May and June and July, he was probably our most consistent starter.
“Taking a look at guys in spring training, how they were throwing the ball early on, I felt that he earned the right to start on Opening Day. So it was a relatively easy decision.”
The manager was also quick to stress that while Opening Day is important, it’s only a small part of a much bigger picture.
“It’s an honor, but it’s not everything that we work for,” Gonzales said. “This year my goal is to make every one of my starts and be a reliable starter for us. So I have 32, 33 starts in mind, not just this first one. So I’m trying to prepare for that as well and it’s going to be a fun year ahead.”
Gonzales was 13-9 with a 4.00 ERA for the Mariners in 29 starts last season. He ended 2018 with 145 strikeouts and 1.22 walks plus hits per innings pitched in 166 2/3 innings.
He’s looking to build upon those numbers this season.
“Just try to learn from it and try to move on,” he said of 2018. “I’m not trying to dwell on it. I’m trying to build on that and trying to use that to garner more success for years to come. Try to take those lessons and just try to put it together for this year.”
Gonzales made four starts during the spring, allowing 14 runs in 13 1/3 frames. He faced the San Francisco Giants in the Cactus League prior to coming to Japan, giving up four runs on five hits in 2 2/3 frames.
“I would say physically, (I feel) pretty good,” Gonzales said. “I think my body has felt good, I’ve done a good job of preparing. The results haven’t been what I wanted them to be, but that’s not what it’s about right now. It’s about getting ready mentally, physically. So I think I’m about as ready as I’ve ever been to go get it.”
While packing up and leaving spring training early to come and start the season in Japan comes with its own challenges, Gonzales is prepared.
“We knew (about) this, and that work went into it in November, December,” he said. “There are things behind the scenes that we were preparing months ago for this.”