DETROIT — The baseball sits in his locker in the visitor’s clubhouse of Comerica Park, put there by his teammates as a keepsake of a memorable moment in the career of Chris Flexen.
When he entered in the sixth inning of Tuesday night’s game against the Tigers with his team leading 9-0, not many people outside of the Mariners dugout and the media covering the team knew what was at stake for the veteran right-hander. It was more than just pitching for the first time since Aug. 19 and closing out a sure victory.
Facing Victor Reyes to start his outing, Flexen got a soft ground ball to first baseman Ty France on a 1-2 count. The ultra-intense Flexen sprinted off the mound and covered first base, taking the short flip from France for the out. Flexen flipped the baseball to second baseman Abraham Toro as the players fired it around the horn.
In the Mariners dugout, players stood and applauded louder than usual for what appeared to be random out in a blowout win.
A smiling France gave Flexen a quarter-hug, tapping the pitcher a little bit in celebration, while Eugenio Suarez tossed the baseball to the dugout to be saved.
With that out, Flexen guaranteed himself an $8 million salary for the 2023 season based on the contract he signed with the Mariners as a free agent before the 2021 season.
“That baseball has some meaning,” he said Wednesday.
With that one out, it gave him 300 innings over the last two seasons, which triggered a $4 million club option for the 2023 season that would vest into a guaranteed $8 million salary for 2023. It represents financial security.
“I knew where I was at, of course,” Flexen said of his innings total. “I’m just happy to be out there, help the bullpen out and for us to get a win.”
After a 1-2-3 inning, his teammates were waiting to congratulate him on the payday he’ll be receiving.
“They were pumping me up,” Flexen said. “It was awesome support from those guys. They were congratulating me, and they all knew what was happening. Everyone was happy for me.”
As he talked about them and the play, his teammates were offering different comments about the money made.
“That’s an $8 million ground ball,” France joked. “You gotta save the ball.”
It’s an $8 million salary earned.
Flexen was the Mariners’ best starting pitcher in 2021, never missing a turn in the starting rotation and making 31 starts. He posted a 14-6 record with a 3.61 ERA in 179 2/3 innings.
He started the 2022 season in the rotation, making 21 starts and posting a 7-9 record, despite minimal run support early on, with a 3.92 ERA in 117 innings.
When the Mariners acquired ace Luis Castillo at the trade deadline to front their rotation, Flexen was moved to the bullpen a week later. The Mariners believed his versatility was a better fit in that role than lefty Marco Gonzales, who volunteered to move if needed. Flexen understood the Mariners’ reasoning and accepted the new role with his typical team-first personality.
At 296 1/3 innings, Flexen was expected to reach 300 innings out of the bullpen. But with the Mariners starting pitchers having so much success, he’d only pitched three innings of relief coming into Tuesday.
Flexen was a bit of a baseball vagabond when the Mariners signed him to a 2-year, $4.75 million contract on Dec. 18, 2020.
Just over a year earlier on Dec. 7, 2019, Flexen signed a 1-year, $750,000 contract with the Doosan Bears of the KBO in South Korea. He’d been designated for assignment by the Mets the day before. At age 25, he was at a crossroads in his career. The Bears offered a paycheck and opportunity that he’d never find in MLB.
Determined to remake himself, Flexen trimmed 50 pounds from his frame, going from 265 to 215. Beyond the physical change, he focused on making a mental change to his approach on the mound.
“I ultimately got my mind and my body in shape,” Flexen told Larry Stone of The Seattle Times on Feb. 20, 2021. “I really worked on the deficiencies I had in my body, and that really helped. Mentally, I was able to be comfortable, be confident and really trust myself. Trust my pitches.”
The decision to pitch in Korea was prescient for Flexen and attractive for the Mariners. He made 21 starts with Doosan, posting an 8-4 record with 116 2/3 innings in 2020. With most MLB starters limited to half that total because of the shorter pandemic season, the Mariners knew Flexen would be able to handle a bigger workload in 2021.
While the $8 million salary is a huge financial lift for Flexen, the opportunity provided by the Mariners and the chance to prove he’s a viable MLB pitcher also has great meaning to him. He’s found a home for the past two seasons and into next season.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “I’m happy to be here and I want to be here. I’m happy to be part of this. It’s definitely gratifying.”
Injury and roster updates
J.P. Crawford was out of the starting lineup for a third consecutive game because of a strained left pectoral muscle. But the Mariners shortstop did participate in the full pregame workout Wednesday with the intent of playing in Thursday’s series finale in Detroit.
As a precaution, the Mariners had infielder Mason McCoy fly to Detroit along with outfielder Taylor Trammell on Tuesday evening. Both were at Comerica before Wednesday’s game and participated in the pregame workout. Both are considered on the “taxi” squad.
If Crawford is able to play as expected, the Mariners will recall Trammell and activate left-hander Matthew Boyd, who was already with the team in Detroit, from the injured list and add both to the active roster with roster expanding to 28 players — 14 pitchers and 14 position players — on Thursday.
If Crawford can’t go and has to be placed on the injured list, McCoy would likely have his minor league contact selected.
Thoughts of spring?
A few weeks after releasing the 2023 regular-season schedule that features all 30 teams playing each other at least once, MLB announced the 2023 spring training schedules Wednesday morning. The Mariners will open Cactus League play Feb. 24. They will play 32 games in 32 days with the finale coming on March 27. They have two split-squad games on March 19 and March 25. Their scheduled off-days come on March 7 and March 21.
Game times and the Mariners broadcast schedule will be released at a later date, as will ticket information.