SEATTLE — Out of the first 10 games and into the fire.
The Seattle Mariners on Friday began their foray into the American League West Division starting with a three-game series against the Oakland Athletics, followed by four games against the reigning World Series-champion Houston Astros.
Then the Mariners head to a three-game series with the Texas Rangers, followed by a week against AL Central teams before hosting the Los Angeles Angels.
So this is a reminder that though the Mariners were 6-4 heading into Friday’s game and off to their best 10-game start since 2013, this division is going to be no joke.
“Our division is very competitive,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said, not wanting to take the bait on where it ranks among the most competitive divisions in baseball. “I haven’t really changed my thoughts any different right now than it was when I came into spring training. I knew it was going to be a good division this year.”
But since spring training there’s been a Shohei Ohtani craze around LA and as far as all the national attention has been concerned. And for good reason: The Babe Ruth of Japan went from looking like a player bound for the minor leagues because of his spring struggles to looking like a frontrunner for the AL MVP.
Ohtani is 2-0 with 18 strikeouts in 13 innings pitched (2.08 ERA) as a pitcher and in seven games at the plate heading into Friday he had hit three home runs, was batting .346 (9-for-26) and had the speed to cruise into a triple on Thursday.
The Angels are No. 1 as a team in baseball in runs scored, home runs and RBI after 14 games.
Oh, and the Astros are almost unanimously considered the best team in baseball — at least according to recent power rankings from Bleacher Report, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, USA Today and Yahoo.
But the Mariners aren’t considering this series with the Athletics to be any sort of warm-up, though they’ve won the season series against Oakland each of the past five season.
Servais pointed to the A’s young talent, specifically referencing third baseman Matt Chapman and first baseman Matt Olson — to go with their young pitching. They went 36-37 in the second half of 2017.
“Oakland is much better,” Servais said. “They have some young players that really did some things offensively. Certainly in the second half of last season. They’re a different team than what we’ve seen in the past. We saw that a little bit in spring training.
“So right now we’re just going to focus on Oakland and we’ll worry about Houston here a little bit later.”
Cruz almost ready
Nelson Cruz called Servais’ at home on Friday before Servais had a chance to submit his lineup for the day.
Cruz went to the 10-day disabled list after spraining his ankle after slipping on the dugout step. He had just hit a two-run home run.
“Very sternly he said he was ready to go,” Servais said. “I said, ‘Let’s see you get out here today and let you run around a little bit.’ … I wanted to see him run the bases a little.”
Cruz did so fairly gingerly, but Servais said they expect to insert him back into their lineup at designated hitter on Saturday in their second of the three-game series against the Athletics. Cruz hit two home runs in his two games played.
“He’s not at 100 percent yet, but we need him in the lineup,” Servais said. “So as soon as we can we’ll get him in there.”
And to account for that slick dugout step, Servais said the Mariners added a long-time coming tacky surface to the top of it. So no more slipping and turning ankles, he hopes.
“Hopefully that doesn’t happen again,” he said.
The Mariners have backed off some on outfielder Ben Gamel (strained oblique). They gave him a day off in his rehab assignment on Wednesday before he was Triple-A Tacoma’s DH in Fresno on Thursday. The optimistic outlook was to have him available Friday (for Ben Gamel cap night at Safeco Field, no less).
“We’re optimistic he might be back with us during the weekend series here,” Servais said. “Gamel physically is ready to go. We just want to give him at-bats. He did not have a spring training.”
And first baseman Ryon Healy (ankle) is progressing faster than the original 2-3 week timeline on him, Servais said. Healy was placed on the DL on April 8.
Catcher Mike Zunino (oblique) took batting practice at Safeco on Friday and Servais said they’d like to get him a couple of rehab starts in the minor leagues before bringing him back to Seattle — optimistically before the end of this seven-game homestand.
Left-hander Marco Gonzales (1-1, 7.27 ERA) hopes to bounce back from his rough start in Kansas City and will make his first Safeco start of the season. The Gonzaga University graduate will be opposed by Athletics RHP Kendall Graveman (0-2, 9.45 ERA) in the 6:10 p.m. game Saturday.