Seattle Mariners

For starters, Mariners turn to Marco Gonzales again. He’s OK with that, even with Gonzaga playing

Marco Gonzales is adamant about this — he only filled out one NCAA Tournament bracket, and you know which team name is written in the championship box in the middle.

Having pitched for Gonzaga, Gonzales says his alma mater has looked great in this year’s college basketball tournament. He picked the Zags to beat North Carolina in the final two weeks from now.

As far Thursday’s game against Florida State in the Sweet 16, he’ll be too busy to watch it.

“I’ve got other things to worry about,” he laughed.

About the same time the Zags tip off against Florida State, Gonzales will be be settling in to throw his first pitch when the Seattle Mariners host the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox in their home opener and Game 3 of the 2019 season.

Gonzales, beginning his second full season with the Mariners after being acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals for outfielder Tyler O’Neill, started Seattle’s season opener in Japan against the Oakland A’s. He said he was nervous, anxious and excited for that honor. He pitched six innings, allowing four runs on seven hits, and earned the win.

“When a day like that happens, you just try to enjoy it and embrace it for what it is,” Gonzales said. “It was nice to get that one in Tokyo under my belt. It was nice to start it there.

“Going forward from here, I think I’m learning more about how to handle those moments and prepare for big games like that.”

By earning the Opening Day start, Gonzales became the first pitcher not named Felix Hernandez to open a season for the Mariners since Erik Bedard in 2008.

Gonzales is, in many ways, the centerpiece of the Mariners’ restructuring in 2019. As the organization aims to build toward becoming a serious playoff contender in future seasons, Gonzales is embracing the responsibility of pitching out of the No. 1 spot.

“I want that,” he said. “I think I’m that type of person where I enjoy going out and setting the tone for a team like this. Especially when this could be a defining year for us.

“I think I want to be at the forefront of that, and I want to show what this team is all about. I think I can do a good job of that.”

Gonzales will again be tasked with setting the tone for the Mariners when he takes the mound at newly branded T-Mobile Park. Last year, on his way to a 13-9 record and a 4.00 ERA, he went 5-3 with a 3.63 ERA at the park formerly known as Safeco Field.

“It will be a little bit different for Marco,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “Obviously starting in Japan the other night and getting that one under his belt (was good).

“We’ll run him out again. He’s looking forward to it. He’s anxious to get it going. A lot of good ball games in this ballpark last year.”

Servais said the Mariners have a higher level of trust in Gonzales after his breakout last season. Even in the Japan series, Servais said he extended Gonzales a longer rope, despite a shaky start.

“He didn’t have his ‘A’ game, but he was able to kind of right the ship and keep us in the ball game,” Servais said. “That’s very valuable. When you start learning that as a young pitcher in this league, you’re going to end up OK.”

Part of why Gonzales is able to stay in control despite rocky innings is because he has four quality pitches to work with, Servais said. But, the other piece is his improving ability to make in-game adjustments.

“Every start you’re going to run into something you need to change and they’re going to adapt,” Gonzales said. “Big-league hitters are great the second, third time through.

“Being able to come up with a different game plan almost batter to batter it seems like, that’s something that is common in the big leagues. I look forward to that challenge, and I really got tested with that last year and I think I can improve on that a lot this year.”

Most guys can’t make in-game adjustments as smoothly as Gonzales has proven he can, Servais said.

“We saw some of it last year,” Servais said. “I just think that the more experience you have, you should be able to recognize it a little bit quicker. He is getting to that point.

“Last year we had to remind him. And there was some reminding done the other night in Japan — ‘Hey, this isn’t working, let’s go to plan B.’ He’s got the ability to quickly flip the switch and go a different direction.”

Gonzales said he’s never finished improving, and will never settle or be content with where he’s at as a pitcher. He’s constantly trying to learn and better himself.

“I felt like I’ve put myself in the spotlight my entire career and I put some high expectations on myself for as long as I can remember,” he said. “Anything that people expect of me is not going to come close to what I expect of myself and the pressure that I’ve put on myself my entire career.”

He said that mentality faded to a certain degree when he missed the entirety of the 2016 season with the Cardinals as he recovered from ligament replacement surgery in his left elbow. There was a point when Gonzales said he wasn’t sure the opportunity to be an Opening Day pitcher would ever come.

Now, he’s not only started the season opener but is scheduled to start the home opener for the Mariners. And despite a certain basketball game happening on Thursday, there will be friends and family in the T-Mobile crowd to watch him pitch.

“It’s something that I’ve worked for for a long time, and it’s something that I’ve dreamed about for a long time,” Gonzales said. “But, being where I was at in my career, at a point I thought it was something that was never going to happen.

“So, I’m just grateful in a lot of ways and to a lot of different people. It’s not just me that’s standing here, there’s a whole bunch of people that have helped me out along the way, so there’s a lot of credit to give out. .... It’s been a collective effort throughout a lifetime for a lot of people.”