SEATTLE — This is not how home openers are supposed to be.
Home openers are supposed to be celebrations. Moments of optimism regarding the beginning of a season and all its possibilities. Especially when a team wins 6-0, as the Seattle Mariners did against the Houston Astros on Monday afternoon in their home opener at Safeco Field.
But for much of Monday’s game there was little celebrating being done by the 44,856 fans in attendance. This wasn’t a festive atmosphere — there was a tension in the air hovering above a crowd best described by words like, “edgy,” and, “apprehensive.”
Some of that edge dissipated Monday thanks to Seattle’s victory, which was led by a sterling performance by starting pitcher James Paxton, who tossed seven scoreless innings. But throughout the game the fans made it clear through their gasps, groans and boos that they had yet to recover from the trauma of the opening week.
“It’s been a rough week, and obviously our fanbase is on it,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said after the game. “They’re watching everything we do and they’re fired up about the prospects of their team, and coming out the way we did is disappointing. It’s disappointing to everybody.”
That disappointment is the fruit of an opening seven-game road trip during which the Mariners won just once. And the most damaging psychological blow was the one freshest in the memory, Sunday’s ninth-inning meltdown against the Los Angeles Angels in which Seattle was unable to hold a six-run ninth-inning lead before falling 10-9. Just how bad was that loss? According to ESPN Stats and Information, there had been 2,529 games in the major since 2011 in which a team led by six or more runs going into the ninth inning. Only once had a team not closed it out, the Mariners joining last year’s Chicago White Sox for that dubious distinction.
It would be one thing if this was a typical season for a Mariners franchise that’s floundered since 2001, when slow starts weren’t just tolerated, but anticipated with the regularity of the tulips blooming every spring in Skagit County. But this is the year that came with expectations. This is the year when Seattle came off a good season and seems to have the pieces in place to make a run. This is the year fans are hoping the 15-year playoff drought comes to an end.
So when a team that considers itself a contender is already four games behind in the AL West standings before it plays for the first time in front of its own fans? It’s understandable if the natives become restless, and they let the Mariners know they were restless Monday.
There was booing in the bottom of the second after Houston pitcher Chris Morton struck out the side.
There was booing after Mitch Haniger lined into a double play to end the bottom of the third.
There was booing in the bottom of the fourth when, after the Mariners loaded the bases with nobody out, Danny Valencia and Leonys Martin waved ineffectually at breaking balls for strike three before Mike Zunino ended the threat with a routine flyout to right.
There were boos after Jarrod Dyson was thrown out at third base on a grounder to short immediately after leading off the bottom of the fifth with a double.
There were even a few boos during pregame player introductions as reliever Casey Fien, who was at the center of Sunday’s blow-up in Anaheim, was unveiled.
Seattle is a city that’s supposed to be known for its tolerance. Apparently all it takes to revoke sanctuary status is a few bad games against the Astros and the Angels.
No, the sky isn’t falling. Before the game Servais drew laughter from the gathered media when, after being asked about whether this was a new experience as a manager for him, he replied, “Were you not here last year? Did we forget how all this played out? I certainly did not (Sunday) night. Driving home (Sunday) night I was like, ‘Oh my gosh there’s no way this happens again.’ We’ve been down this road before.”
Indeed, much of the same things were being said around this time last year as Seattle dropped its first five home games to fall to 2-6. That Mariners team recovered to win 86 games and stay in the playoff hunt right to the final weekend of the regular season. Baseball has a long season, one in which every team expereinces a rough patch. Perhaps Seattle’s rough patch just came early this year.
Yet even though the Mariners are well aware that there’s no such thing as a must-win game in April, they understood the importance of winning Monday to set minds at ease.
“It was a rough road trip,” Paxton said. “We didn’t play very well, and especially coming after (Sunday), that was tough. So coming into today I feel it was big to get us back on the right foot. We did what we needed to do, we won the ball game, and hopefully that can turn things around for us here.”
And perhaps most importantly, it kept the villagers from breaking the torches and pitchforks out of the barn just yet.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.