Mariners look capable of dramatic leap forward in 2014

SEATTLE — Predictably, Safeco Field was rocking when a handful of Seahawks and their coach, Pete Carroll, entered through the center-field gate for a pregame ceremony celebrating their Super Bowl title. Far more significant, however, was that the celebration continued throughout the Mariners’ home opener.

Even though the season is barely a week old, the refrain you keep hearing over and over is that this Mariners team “just feels different.” It’s silly to assign significance to stats or even a win-loss record this early in the season, but in Tuesday’s 5-3 victory over the Los Angeles Angels, the Mariners again looked like a team capable of taking a dramatic leap forward in 2014. And perhaps one capable of greatness if the Mariners can keep playing the Angels, who they swept in Anaheim to open the season.

For the first time in a long time, opening day at Safeco Field felt like a celebration not just because baseball was back for the first time this year, but just maybe because good baseball was back for the first time in years.

And yes, I could very well end up looking like a fool in a few weeks or months for the above paragraph, but until this promising group shows otherwise, it’s fun to wonder if Robinson Cano could possibly be onto something when he says, “Now this team, we can compete with anybody in this league. Not only in our division, but in the league. In the past, everybody saw this team as young kids that need to learn and grow, but now it’s different.”

Cano gave that answer before Tuesday’s game when he was asked about being booed on Seattle’s opening road trip. He said it didn’t bother him, because the Angels and A’s are division rivals, and their fans recognize that the Mariners are an improving team.

“That’s not what our rivals want to see,” he said.

Cano had his first hitless game as a Mariner, but his impact was still felt, most notably in Seattle’s four-run third inning that erased the Angels’ early lead. After Brad Miller reached on a two-out strikeout/wild pitch, Cano was walked on four straight pitches by Los Angeles starter Hector Santiago, who wanted nothing to do with the Mariners’ newly signed star second baseman.

Justin Smoak, the player benefiting most from Cano’s presence in the lineup, responded with an RBI single, and Corey Hart, another new addition for the 2014 season, followed with a three-run blast, his first of two home runs in the game. Back-to-back, Smoak and Hart did exactly what the Mariners need from their No. 4 and 5 hitters if teams are going to pitch around Cano.

And sure, it wasn’t all sunshine, roses and Lombardi Trophies on Tuesday night.

The buzz from the pregame celebration was promptly sucked out of the building when Albert Pujols and David Freese hit back-to-back home runs to give the Angels a 3-0 lead in the first. And after Mariners starter James Paxton settled down to retire 14 in a row following those homers, what looked like another brilliant outing for the young lefty was cut short by what was initially diagnosed as a left latissimus dorsi strain. Maybe that lat strain is minor and Paxton will back on the mound soon, but any injury for a young, promising pitcher is cause for concern, and that’s especially true for a team with a rotation as thin as Seattle’s.

The Mariners’ 5-2 start and some promising early results from players like Smoak, Dustin Ackley and Paxton aren’t by themselves enough to erase the memories of a decade of losing. For that to happen, this team will have to keep its fans engaged long after their football-playing preseason visitors have kicked off training camp this summer, and the Mariners understand that.

“Listen, I understand, we’ve been knocked around for quite a while,” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said. “People on the streets can be very pessimistic, as well as you guys (media), and probably rightly so. We just haven’t gotten it done, and it’s a results-oriented business. It’s nice to get off to a good start.

“I know where we are as a team, I know the improvements we need to continue to make and I know the attitude on this team. I think I’ve got a pretty good pulse on this club. I like where we are. I don’t know what the future’s going to hold, but I do know we’re going to show up every day and play good, hard, sound, fundamental baseball and do our best to win.”

And in a sold-out Safeco Field on Tuesday night, the Mariners’ best once again looked, well, surprisingly good. Cano’s “we can compete with anybody in this league” optimism would have sounded ludicrous prior to the start of the season, and even now it’s hard to envision the Mariners going from perennial 90-plus-loss team to contenders. But when the buzz lasted nine innings past Russell Wilson’s ceremonial first pitch, and when the Mariners kept coming up with clutch hits, Cano’s words seemed just a tiny bit more believable than they had when he said them hours earlier.

“You want to compete, you don’t want to play 162 games and go home,” Cano said. “We want to compete and play, and who knows what can happen between now and October 1st?”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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