Making just his third start of his career, Marjama handled all the defensive duties of a catcher despite having a bat smash his glove hand in the second inning.
In the organized chaos that was opening day, Mike Marjama was bounding around the Mariners’ clubhouse hours before Felix Hernandez’s first pitch Thursday night at Safeco Field.
Marjama, 28, is a bundle of energy and optimism who rarely sits still on an average day, and his meter was set higher with this being the first opening day of his brief big-league career.
There were hitters’ meetings, pitchers’ meetings, individual work, a bullpen session with Mike Leake and an assortment of other duties and responsibilities that are associated with the catching position. And he wasn’t even scheduled to start that night.
And there was the premise of not tripping when he ran down the red carpet during player introductions, which he was reminded of by a media member.
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“I’m good,” he said. “Thanks for that.”
But all that nervous energy got channeled into something else just before the Mariners were set to take batting practice. As Marjama was catching Leake in the bullpen, manager Scott Servais walked out to inform him he was starting and catching Hernandez because Mike Zunino had a sore right side.
It was a possibility that Marjama had not allowed to enter his mind.
“I knew Z had kind of tweaked something (in a workout Wednesday),” Marjama said.
But catchers play through so many minor injuries, it seemed Zunino would be in there.
Instead, in the third start of his career, Marjama would be catching Hernandez — a pitcher had not caught in a game — and batting eighth against the Cleveland Indians, the expected American League Central winners.
“It was just excitement, really more than anything,” he said. “You grow up watching Felix pitch on TV and do his opening games, and then for me to be a part of that and have the best seat in the house … I’m really truly honored to have this kind of opportunity.”
Marjama had caught Hernandez in a handful of bullpen sessions this spring, so it wasn’t going to be a completely foreign experience. The two men met with pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre and assistant coach Jim Brower to go over the game plan and Indians scouting report.
“He did a great job,” Hernandez said. “We talked about everything before the game. And we executed.”
Marjama saw hints of Hernandez’s game-level stuff in the bullpen sessions. But the regular-season intensity from Hernandez? Well, that was new.
“He’s a whole different animal when the game starts,” Marjama said. “The aggressiveness, the demeanor changes. Come on now, it’s Felix Hernandez, watching the way he competes, there’s no one like him.”
Sure, blocking the diving changeup isn’t fun and trying to frame a sinker with so much movement isn’t easy, but Marjama elicited a sly grin when asked about calling a game with Hernandez’s repertoire of plus pitches.
“It’s like getting a new car,” he said. “You’ve got some toys and buttons you can press. He’s got some pretty cool buttons and toys you can press every once in a while.”
Marjama’s magical night was almost cut short soon after it began. In the second inning he reached out to grab a 3-2 sinker from Hernandez. But at the same time, Edwin Encarnacion took a vicious swing, and his bat squarely struck the top of Marjama’s glove and by extension his hand. Catchers live by a code that is prided on not just enduring pain, but rarely allowing people to see that you are in it. But Marjama’s reaction was immediate and obvious agony, meaning the pain couldn’t be swallowed.
“Apparently Encarnacion told Felix that he got me pretty good,” Marjama said. “Seeing some of the balls that he’s hit in the past – yeah, my hand got hit pretty good.”
After meeting with Mariners athletic trainer Matt Toth and Servais, Marjama remained in the game. He knew Zunino was hurting and utility infielder Andrew Romine wasn’t a viable option. Servais said Zunino could have played in an emergency.
“I was a little scared of where we were going to go at that point,” Servais said. “But he really gutted it out for us.”
Marjama wasn’t going to let Zunino get forced into playing, and he wasn’t about to let his chance to play get taken away. He was staying in, not matter how much it hurt.
“I didn’t have an option,” he said. “We didn’t really have anybody else right now. If it’s dislocated or broken, we’ll tape it to another finger and just get going. Really it was no option, so suck it up and it’s part of the game and we’ll get going.”
When he returned to his crouch to receive a few warm-up pitches from Hernandez, he earned the pitcher’s respect.
“I was like, ‘He’s tough guy,’ ” Hernandez said. “And he was fine after that.”
As an infielder converted to catcher, Marjama has been open about his defensive shortcomings, admitting he’s a work in progress. His athleticism allows him to pick things up quickly. But the refinement of the position can take years. Still, he handled Hernandez and relievers Dan Altavilla, Marc Rzepczynski, Nick Vincent, Juan Nicasio and Edwin Diaz without incident or a passed ball. When Diaz was inching toward implosion in the ninth inning, hitting two batters and getting called for a balk, Marjama went to the mound to calm the emotional closer.
“In a situation like that, we are all going to get sped up a little bit.,” he said. “You just have to take a deep breath, slow yourself down and say, ‘This is just another game for us.’ He made some great pitches, maybe a pitch or two got away. It’s Eddie. He’s got the stuff. Sometimes you get a little amped up. So you just get out there tell him, ‘Let’s take a deep breath and slow ourselves down.’ “
Marjama almost had a RBI single if not for a brilliant diving stop from all-everything shortstop Francisco Lindor. But his work behind the plate in an unexpected situation was far more valuable to Servais.
“MVP of the game for me,” said Servais, a former catcher. “I know the (Nelson) Cruz homer was big and Eddie got the big save, but the unsung hero is Mike Marjama here tonight.”
Marjama was never a touted prospect or even an expected big-leaguer. Admittedly, he never knew if he would reach the big leagues or if he would stay. Now his thinking is starting to change.
“I’m really truly honored to have this kind of opportunity. I’ve been training 28 years of my life for this,” Marjama said. “So in my mind, there was no pressure or any of that, it’s just excitement and something that goes down, as of now, really the best day of my baseball career.”