Much happened when the Seattle Mariners opened their season in Japan last week, including grabbing a pair of wins over American League West rival Oakland, and sending Ichiro Suzuki off into retirement.
Back in Seattle, and hosting their annual two-day FanFest celebration at the newly branded T-Mobile Park, manager Scott Servais says the Mariners are ready to turn the page.
“We’re going back to spring training today,” he said Saturday afternoon ahead of the team’s first workout back at home. “It is hard. No question about it. The biggest thing is to get out, we’ll run around the next couple of days, get on the field and try to get our legs underneath us again, and get through a couple of exhibition games.
“And, we’ve got the world champs coming into town. We certainly have enough on our plate to grab our attention. We’ll be fine.”
Servais reflected on the success of the trip to Japan, noting it was a good way to bring so many players the club acquired in the offseason together.
“It was a fantastic trip, it really was,” Servais said. “I was looking forward to going all along. I thought it would be great for our team, just bringing so many new guys, bringing everybody together. ... Going to a different country, you tend to gravitate towards everybody else you’re familiar with.
“Then, to top it off with everything that went down with Ichiro, it really couldn’t have gone any better. And, by the way, we did win two games. That kind of gets overlooked.”
Servais said the energy surrounding Ichiro during the trip — including the two exhibition games the Mariners played, and the two wins over Oakland in the Tokyo Dome — ignited the rest of the club.
“The guys played good,” Servais said. “I think we were ready to play. I really liked the way we handled things offensively. I think we did some things there. Guys threw well out of the bullpen, and our starters gave us a chance. It was a good trip.”
Can that momentum carry into Thursday’s home opener against the reigning World Series champion Boston Red Sox? Servais hopes so.
“I hope we’re able to grow on it,” he said. “I think we did some good things. We have a lot of players who are new to the organization.
“Guys that really stood out — Domingo Santana played well, Tim Beckham played well, Hunter Strickland, (Cory) Gearrin, (Zac) Rosscup all threw well. (Yusei) Kikuchi gets his first one under his belt. There were so many positives coming out of that trip, you hope you can keep it rolling, and I don’t see why we can’t.”
Servais said he knew “for a little while” that Ichiro was planning to retire in Japan before it was officially announced.
“We did a good job keeping it quiet and being respectful of him and his wishes,” Servais said.
The players and staff gathered in a small room adjacent to their dugout in the Tokyo Dome, Servais said, and he addressed the team briefly before Ichiro spoke to the team, and then eventually American reporters.
“It was neat to see our whole team come down and be a part of that as well,” Servais said.
When Ichiro was taken out of the second game of the series in the eighth inning, for the final time, Servais said it was important to get the moment right.
“I guess, for me, you try to script it out, try to calculate when to get him out of the game,” Servais said. “I certainly felt it was important for him to come off the field, to the Japanese fans that were there and to give them one final goodbye, tip your hat.
“After the game, I don’t think I’ll ever forget going back out into the stadium, and seeing Ichiro take the lap, so to speak, and our entire team really embracing the situation, taking it all in.
“There’s certain things you remember throughout the course of your career. I talked to our team about that after the game, with Ichiro in there. Throughout the course of your career, you run into a lot of really unique people, and some really great players. And, when you combined it, a very unique person and being a great player, that’s why Ichiro is one of the all-time best to ever play the game.”
BULLPEN STILL IN FLUX
Servais reiterated Saturday that the Mariners’ bullpen — one of the biggest question marks entering the 2019 season — is still a work in progress.
He did reaffirm that the plan this season is to use right-hander Hunter Strickland as the club’s closer, but said there are no other definitive roles.
“It’s going to be pockets and matchups where they fit,” he said. “You’re hoping that a few of our young guys really step up. There’s opportunities for that to happen. Certainly when a couple of guys went down with (Anthony) Swarzak kind of being slow to add to our bullpen, with (Gerson) Bautista going down, it adds more opportunities for other guys to step up.
“I think we saw Matt Festa have a really good outing, it was the first time (Brandon) Brennan’s pitched in a major league game and he got through it, which is exciting for him and all of us. But, there will be opportunities to be in some roles certain nights. ... You just have to go out and play the game.”
SMITH READY TO RETURN
Center fielder Mallex Smith (right elbow strain), who has been rehabbing throughout spring camp, is projected to play in the two exhibition games against the San Diego Padres on Monday and Tuesday, Servais said.
“He’s been able to get 30-35 at-bats with us in spring training, trying to shuffle him into minor league games,” Servais said. “He’s played the outfield one day, he’s been throwing to the bases. He’ll play in the exhibition games against the Padres, and we’ll see what that looks like.”
Dan Vogelbach, who was hit by a pitch in the right elbow in Japan, hit in the cage and took batting practice Saturday, Servais said. The first baseman had some swelling, Servais said, but is otherwise fine.
The club announced Saturday that outfielder Braden Bishop, a Washington Huskies product, and right-handed reliever Dan Altavilla have been optioned to Triple-A Tacoma to trim the roster down to 25 players.
The roster was at 28 players, including the three designated as “inactive” in Japan. Ichiro’s retirement, and these two sent to Tacoma, brings the total to 25.