Classic M’s ‘preview’: Ichiro returns, Félix’s final opening day start in 2018
With the Mariners’ 2020 season postponed until further notice, 710 ESPN Seattle is airing a different classic M’s game every night at 7 p.m. (full schedule here). Below, Mariners insider Shannon Drayer provides a preview of the next game.
March 29, 2018
The Mariners’ 2018 season opener. The start to the final season before the big tear down, step back, re-imagination, rebuild – whatever you want to call it (and no doubt would like to see right now).
Coming off a disappointing, injury-plagued 2017 season where they tied the record for most pitchers used in a season and finished 78-84, Mariners camp in Peoria did not garner the type of national interest it did the few years previous despite the star power of Robinson Canó, Nelson Cruz and Félix Hernández.
That would change in early March with rumblings that 44-year-old free-agent outfielder Ichiro could be heading back to the Mariners. In less than 48 hours, the rumblings turned into reality as Ichiro was back. This of course was a very different Ichiro from the one who previously donned a Mariners uniform, as he had transitioned from star player to role player while with the Yankees and Marlins. It was a role he had come to embrace.
“In 2001 when I first came over, I was really only worried about myself because I knew if I didn’t perform I wasn’t going to be around,” said Ichiro in his re-introductory press conference. “I only had that time to really worry about me and think about what I need to do. It’s been 17 years since then. I still have things I want to do, I want to accomplish of course as a player. What’s different for me today is I have had many experiences to get to this point. I’m really thinking about this year. What the Seattle Mariners need, what I can do to help, and that’s what I want to do.”
General manager Jerry Dipoto had been interested in possibly reacquiring Ichiro in the fall but there was no fit for him on the team. Then Ben Gamel suffered an oblique strain in late February, becoming one of many who suffered injuries that spring. Both Canó and Cruz were slowed by leg strains. Ryon Healy, who had been picked up in the fall in a trade with Oakland, didn’t even make it to camp on time as he required surgery to remove a bone spur from his hand. Erasmo Ramírez suffered a lat strain early on and Mike Zunino strained his oblique during batting practice at Safeco Field the day before the opener. The most talked-about injury of the spring, though, was the contusion to the right forearm of Félix Hernández, who was hit by a wicked line drive off the bat of Cubs catcher Victor Caratini.
It was a scary sight as it was clear Félix knew he was hurt. To that point he had been throwing well and seemingly had started to make some of the adjustments manager Scott Servais and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. had been advocating. To see him display promise after performance and injury problems in 2017 made the moment that much more striking.
A personal story from that day. The game was played at Sloan Park in Mesa. Even though I have not lived in the midwest since I left for college, growing up a Cubs fan in Illinois I still get a little bit of a pang of “home” when I see a throng of Cubs jerseys and am surrounded by midwest accents. It was a beautiful day and I decided to take a walk around the park and take it all in. I was also on a mission to find a breaded pork tenderloin sandwich, the Illinois/Iowa/Indiana classic.
I enjoyed my sandwich at one of the picnic tables behind center field. As I headed back I saw a huge crowd around the visitors bullpen. Fans were watching Félix warm up. I thought, what the heck, I don’t get to do this very often, why not go watch like a fan?
I found a spot on the rail, and as I watched Félix, thoughts of him through the years – and I was there from day one of his Mariners career – went through my head. As frustrating a season as 2017 had been, on a personal level I hoped it would work out for him in 2018. It was interesting to watch and listen to the fans around me. To them, both wearing Cubs and Mariners gear, it was clear he was still the King.
It wasn’t hard to see that Félix was working in that pen and feeling good. To see the ball leave his hand from above was a totally different vantage point than I had ever had before.
Felix warming up in Mesa. pic.twitter.com/geL1ajdSCx
— Shannon Drayer (@shannondrayer) February 26, 2018
It looked good. You could hear the sizzle of the pitch, the pop of the glove, see the movement and that he was hitting his spots. At one point he looked up and nodded at me. Félix always wanted to know that people were watching. In his early years I would never miss one of his starts. If it was a day off, I would come in anyway because who knows what could happen. A little later I would start to take those days off but always tune in early, ready to run should something special happen. More than once if he had a good game that I missed the next day he would ask “Where were you?” apparently noting I had not been in the postgame media scrum the night before.
All of that went through my mind that day. The frustration of why can’t he just let the pitching coaches help him and make the adjustment to what he now was in his 30s was gone for a few minutes. After 13 years at that point, it was hard to believe there would be a time when he wasn’t in that Mariners clubhouse. I made a mental note to try and appreciate him a bit more while I could.
With all of this in mind, it was a sick feeling when he was struck by the ball. The news was about as good as can be: no broken bones. It was a contusion that left on his arm a massive, ever-changing-in-color bruise complete with seam marks. Surely he would not be ready for opening day, right? Well, that was not his plan. Félix insisted in every interview that followed that he would not miss opening day. All he needed was one start in the spring and he would go out there and do what he did on the first day of every season.
It would turn out to be his last opening day start for the Mariners.
Francisco Lindor, SS
Jason Kipnis, 2B
Jose Ramírez, 3B
Yonder Alonso, 1B
Edwin Encarnación, DH
Lonnie Chisenhall, RF
Yan Gomes, C
Tyler Naquin, LF
Bradley Zimmer, CF
Corey Kluber, P
Dee Gordon, CF
Jean Segura, SS
Robinson Canó, 2B
Nelson Cruz, DH
Kyle Seager, 3B
Mitch Haniger, RF
Ryon Healy, 3B
Mike Marjama, C
Ichiro Suzuki, LF
Félix Hernández, P
Félix Hernández vs. the man who took his Cy Young Award. It would be the last game to date in which Félix did not give up a run. Ichiro’s return to Safeco Field. Dee Gordon’s first start as a Mariner and first start in outfield. Yeah, that experiment didn’t work out well.
The real fun was just around the corner. The roller coaster included Nelson Cruz slipping on the dugout steps March 31 and missing two weeks. A bald eagle landing on James Paxton’s shoulder before his April 5 start against the Twins. The next day, broadcaster “carnage,” as Dave Sims put it, with Sims and Rick Rizzs both requiring surgery after a staff/broadcaster pickup basketball game on an off day in Minneapolis. On that trip the M’s would also lose Healy, who rolled an ankle in a postgame workout.
The highlight of the season, Paxton’s no-hitter in Toronto, was still a month away.
From this game: Mike Marjama, injured hand and all, saves M’s opener