As recently as a few months ago, the Seattle Mariners considered starting pitching a strength.
A pair of potential Cy Young Award candidates, Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, would anchor the top of the rotation. A pair of potential rookie of the year candidates, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, appeared poised to follow up on the impressive debuts they made in September.
The fifth starter? Who knew? Who cared? Maybe it would be another kid emerging from a farm system stocked with young power arms. Or maybe it would be a journeyman capable of throwing six innings every fifth day.
In any case, the search for a fifth starter would sort itself out, because whatever challenges awaited Lloyd McClendon in his first season as the Mariners’ manager, starting pitching wasn’t one of them.
How things have changed.
Iwakuma, recovering from a finger injury suffered during an offseason workout, is still limited to bullpen sessions.
Walker, nursing shoulder inflammation, was thought to be one Tacoma start away from rejoining the Mariners, but he couldn’t get loose Tuesday, and he’ll need at least two weeks before he tries to throw again.
Paxton remains on the disabled list because of a strained back muscle, which isn’t as troublesome as a shoulder or elbow injury, but is a source of anxiety for a team suddenly desperate for starting pitchers.
The Mariners continue their road-to-perdition trip Friday during a series against the Miami Marlins. Veteran Chris Young, who wasn’t added to the roster until March 27, will start the first game. The electrifying Roenis Elias, who wasn’t regarded among the top 25 prospects in the farm system when spring training began, will start the second game.
And the third? Nobody is sure who’ll start, which looms as a problem. But there are worse problems than uncertainty.
Certainty, for instance.
When Erasmo Ramirez gets his turn to pitch, it is certain he’ll fall behind on counts and serve up batting-practice fastballs. Iwakuma’s injury put Ramirez in position to claim a temporary role as No. 2 starter, and he delivered, and then some, during the Cactus League season.
This just in: Those games were exhibitions. Since breaking camp, Ramirez has given up 15 earned runs in 18 innings.
A Thursday matinee presented the Mariners with a timely bounce-back opportunity to recover from the Wednesday night train wreck in Texas — one-run lead, two outs and nobody on, a closer exuding sheer intimidation on the mound, what could go wrong? — and they responded with valiance, rallying from a four-run deficit to take a 6-4 lead over the Rangers in the top of the third.
Given a chance to redeem himself and, more important, preserve a two-run lead in a game that offered the ultimate hangover cure, Ramirez didn’t dawdle. He threw a pitch Kevin Kouzmanoff drove into the corner for a double, and before you knew it — as if you didn’t know all along — Texas was back in business.
Ramirez is only 23, so we’re not talking about a lost cause. But he needs to make his next start in Tacoma, where Dustin Ackley found his natural sweet swing last season, and where Nick Franklin needed only a few weeks to reassert himself as big league-ready this season.
The problem with demoting Ramirez is arranging a corresponding promotion. He’s in over his head as a major league starter right now, but anybody the Mariners call up to replace him will be similarly overwhelmed.
What to do
McClendon, determined to survive an arms crisis that has created a perfect storm for overreaction, espouses the big-picture outlook of hanging in there.
“You play the hand that you’re dealt,” he said Thursday.
As for the rest of us, we can still dream of a starting rotation that could be the best in baseball: Hernandez, Iwakuma, Paxton, Elias and Walker.
So close, yet so far away.
In 2003, Jamie Moyer, Freddy Garcia, Joel Pineiro, Ryan Franklin and Gil Meche were the first group of starters since the 1966 Los Angeles Dodgers to not miss a start in 162 regular-season games.
It requires a wild imagination to envision Hernandez, Iwakuma, Paxton, Elias and Walker enjoying that same kind of durability, so let’s leave any notions of an iron-man rotation at the door.
Still, the possibility persists of those five pitchers achieving a state of full strength simultaneously, and working through a single rotation cycle, and then another, and another.
It’s something fun to think about while the Mariners scrounge for a pitcher, any pitcher, who can take the mound Sunday.john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com