By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — For all of the sprucing up the Mariners did at Safeco Field this offseason, the organization knew that in the long run, a fancy new scoreboard, a more hitter-friendly park, or a restaurant named for one of the most beloved players in franchise history weren’t going to mean much if the on-field product wasn’t also improved.
So it’s fitting then that the Mariners won their home opener in large part because some of their new players showed glimpses of what should be a better future for this team. Did Monday night’s 3-0 victory over the presumed AL-West-bottom-feeding Houston Astros prove that the Mariners are definitively a great team, or even a very good one? Hardly, but seeing new No. 3 hitter Kendrys Morales drive in a pair of runs, seeing veteran lefty Joe Saunders throw six-plus shutout innings, and even feeling the anticipation of 42,589 fans as Michael Morse, he of five home runs in his first seven games, came to the plate with the bases loaded were a good early indicator that Mariners baseball will be more enjoyable this year for reasons that go beyond a few upgrades to the stadium.
“It’s a new page in this organization,” Morse said prior to the game. “Going forward we have a great team, we have a team we’ve built up for a couple of years now, and we’re going to start putting a finished product out there.
“The first week, I think the two teams we played found out we’re totally a different team. We’re revamped from last year and we’re going to give you a good ballgame.”
Now, it’s a big leap from giving an opponent a good ballgame on a nightly basis and being a playoff team, but that’s a necessary step along the road, and one the Mariners should be able to make this season. Last year was about the Mariners taking their lumps in the name of improvement. The hope for this year’s team is that this season has a lot more games like Monday’s where a combination of middle-of-the-lineup production can team with small-ball to produce runs.
“It’s completely different,” manager Eric Wedge said. “Starting a couple of years ago, it was just that, a start. You had to take a few steps backwards to move forward. Last year you take one step back but move two steps forward, and this year we’re just looking to move forward. You keep getting better, that’s what we’re going to keep doing. We’ll be a better ballclub this year, and how that defines itself, we’ll find out over time. But I like our club, I love the dynamic within the players, I like how they play.”
There was no more fitting way for the Mariners to show their fans that this year will be different than the past few than for Michael Saunders to lead off with a hit off of Philip Humber, the same man who emerged from obscurity to throw an unlikely perfect game against Seattle last spring. After Saunders stole second, then moved to third on a Franklin Gutierrez groundout, Morales came through with what the Mariners hope will be the first of many clutch hits in his new home park. Morales plated Saunders again two innings later with a solid double to the gap.
“He’s a very professional hitter, he’s a smart hitter,’ Wedge said of Morales. “He as well as the other veterans have been a great influence on our young kids. They’re going to help all of those guys. They’ll be a big part of what our young hitters ultimately end up being.”
And on a night when a couple of new Mariners came up big, one of the biggest plays came from a center fielder who almost feels like a new addition. Yes, Gutierrez has been around for a while, but after missing much of the past two seasons with injuries and illness, it was easy to write him off coming into this season. Yet his third-inning catch that turned a leadoff double or triple into a spectacular diving catch was a huge moment in the early going that helped Seattle preserve a shutout. There are no bigger ifs than saying, “if Gutierrez is healthy” but let’s do it anyway — if Gutierrez is healthy, that’s as big an addition to the 2013 Mariners as anyone they signed or traded for in the offseason.
This home-opening win was just one win, and it came against a team that will almost certainly be one of the worst in baseball when the dust settles, but it was still a good way for the Mariners to open their home schedule. There will be bumps in the road — this team is far from a finished product — but Monday was at least an encouraging sign that progress may finally be on the way.
“The feedback I get from a lot of players is that the clubhouse is totally different,” Morse said. “It’s a great atmosphere, it’s relaxed. I think that’s what brings winning teams together, just being relaxed and going out there, believing in yourself and playing within your abilities. Once everybody gets on the same page and plays to their abilities, we’re going to be a tough team to beat.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.