On Major League Baseball’s opening day, in the first counting game at rebranded T-Mobile Park, new Mariners ace Marco Gonzales threw out the first pitch at 4:11 p.m. Thursday.
Two minutes earlier, in an anticipated Sweet 16 showdown in the NCAA tournament’s West Region, Gonzales’ alma mater, his beloved Gonzaga Bulldogs, tipped off against Florida State in Anaheim, Calif.
The evening could not have gone much better for Gonzales or Gonzaga.
UMBC over Virginia it’s not, but the Mariners’ 12-4 victory against the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox — in a game started by star left-hander Chris Sale — qualifies as baseball’s most surprising upset of opening day.
Gonzaga, the West’s top seed, built a 38-27 lead over Florida State by halftime.
By then, Gonzales and the Mariners had turned the corner on Sale, the former American League Cy Young Award contender who surrendered seven runs in three innings.
Gonzales allowed one run in the first and one run in the second but remained aggressive against a Boston lineup that ranked as the most potent in all of baseball in 2018.
“It’s a tough assignment, first time out here for Marco,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “But Marco’s done a really good job of understanding who he is, understanding the game situation and what’s working for him that day.”
Gonzales’ final pitch of the fifth inning, at 5:57 p.m., was an 83-mph cutter, chopped by Boston’s Mitch Moreland to shortstop for an easy ground out, maintaining the Mariners’ 7-2 lead.
At that moment, things turned tense for the Zags in Anaheim. With 7:35 left in the game, Florida State had trimmed its deficit to six point, 57-51.
By the time Gonzales returned to the mound for the top of the sixth inning, the Mariners’ lead increased to 8-2 — but Gonzaga’s lead was cut to four points with four minutes left. Nervous times? Not for Gonzales, who was obviously oblivious to what was happening in the basketball game.
Gonzales would surrender two more runs in the sixth inning, allowing an RBI double to Boston catcher Christian Vazquez on his 94th and final pitch.
At 6:17 p.m., Servais came out to relieve Gonzales with one out in the sixth, and the 27-year-old left-hander received a standing ovation from many of the 45,601 in attendance. He acknowledged the crowd with a tip of the cap and pointed to a group of family and friends sitting a dozen rows behind home plate.
Right as he settled in the dugout, Gonzales looked up at the T-Mobile Park videoboard and saw for the first time the final score of the Gonzaga game:
Talk about relief.
“Perfect timing,” Gonzales said later.
Gonzales’ final line: 5 1/3 innings pitched, nine hits, four runs, three earned runs, one walk and four strikeouts. Having started the Mariners’ season opener in Japan, he’s now 2-0 and the Mariners are a surprising 3-0.
“Very special,” said Gonzales, a first-round pick out of Gonzaga in the 2013 MLB draft. “I had a lot of family and friends in the stands tonight, a lot of Zags, and I think trying to walk the line between enjoying the moment and understanding what it is and going out and competing and pitching the ballgame. So I felt I did a little better job than I did in Tokyo, and I was ready for it.
“This is something I’ve been waiting for for a long time. And ever since I knew I was going to get this game, I knew it was going to be something special.”
As for Gonzaga? Never a doubt.
“To be honest,” he said, “I wasn’t really that worried.”