One of the small points of pride the Mariners bosses took in building the 2018 roster was they had no rookies to be forced into the MLB crucible. Well, except for one, the backup catcher, Mike Marjama, an obscure acquisition in September of note to few outside his immediate family.
Yet on Opening Night, against the formidable Cleveland Indians and their ace, Corey Kluber, in front of the largest regular-season crowd in Safeco Field history, eager to welcome back Ichiro and celebrate Felix Hernandez’s 11th start in an opener, the rookie became the pivot point in one of the most compelling team and individual debuts in club history.
Thrown into the lineup as an emergency replacement for injured Mike Zunino, Marjama had exactly zero innings of game experience catching Hernandez, the Mariners’ most experienced pitcher.
“I watched him a lot on TV,” Marjama said brightly, even though that made him no more qualified than any of the 47,149 on hand — or the TV audience he left behind.
On top of the lineup shuffle that could have cratered the night before it even began, Marjama took a blow to the back of his catching hand from the bat of the powerful Edwin Encarnacion. As Marjama walked about in excruciating pain, tended to by trainers, Hernandez thought Marjama was done.
“What’s gonna happen now?” Hernandez said, knowing there was no third catcher on the roster.
What happened, was a triumph rich in guts, tension and precision.
The 2-1 victory had multiple heroes, especially DH Nelson Cruz, the Kluber clubber whose towering, 412-foot homer to center in the first inning was all the scoring Seattle produced. Hernandez himself delivered an unexpected 83 pitches and 5.1 innings of two-hit, shutout ball. And five relievers, including the over-amped closer, Eddie Diaz, held the Indians lineup to a run and three hits.
But the man of the cool, rainless March evening was Marjama.
“He was the hero,” said manager Scott Servais. “MVP.”
Not only did he suck it up through the injury, the rookie was the one who went to the mound in the ninth to calm down Diaz after his 98 mph heaters hit two Indians batters, and gave up a balk and an easy steal to put runners on second and third with one out.
“There was not a lot to do from the bench,” Servais said.
Marjama found the right words. As the sellout crowd rose to its feet and implored Diaz, he struck out Yan Gomes and Tyler Naquin to put Sodo on tilt as if it were a Seahawks game.
Marjama recounted how before the game began, several veterans took a minute to talk with him.
“We have such great leaders,” he said. “They pulled me aside and told me to relax, take a deep breath. But I’ve been preparing for all of my 28 years for this.
“This is the best day of my baseball career.”
The Roseville, CA., native was in 2011 a 23rd-round draft pick by the White Sox out of Long Beach State as an infielder. He converted to catcher and spent four years in the Chicago system, and two more in Tampa Bay’s system before the trade that brought him to catcher-shy Seattle. He had his first taste of major league ball with five games in September. Thursday night was his third career MLB start.
At spring training, he hit .300 with two homers and did well enough behind the plate to beat out more experienced Dan Freitas to back up Zunino. Then in his first big break, he almost broke.
Servais said that his third catcher would have been utility man Andrew Romine, who had a little experience and was given catching gear to get ready in the bullpen. But Marjama apparently applied the dictum made famous by legendary manager Sparky Anderson: “Pain don’t hurt ya.”
“Encarnacion told Felix that he hit me pretty good,” said Marjama, who was called for interference that gave Encarnacion first base. “But we had no option. If a finger was broken or dislocated, we’d just have to tape it up to the next finger and go.”
Hernandez was impressed.
“He was good,” he said. “He did a great job.”
So did Hernandez.
“I wasn’t surprised,” he said, knowing he made some believers in a crowd of media skeptics who saw Hernandez pitch only a few innings in spring training. “My sinker was really working down in the zone. I had a good curveball.”
The mass gathering added to the drama.
“When I walked from the dugout to the mound (to start the game), it was electric,” he said. “I like the big stage.”
So does Marjama. Rook takes King for the win.