By Kirby Arnold
SEATTLE — The Seattle Mariners spent the past six weeks working on ways to make something of their scoring chances. They needed to work the ball-strike counts. They needed to bunt. They needed to run. They needed to hit-and-run.
Through much of spring training, that approach often looked more like a train wreck as the Mariners ran into outs and flubbed opportunities.
Monday, it was their vehicle to a season-opening victory.
Jose Lopez’s hit-and-run single helped the Mariners score twice in the sixth inning to take the lead, and his two-run double in the seventh helped finish off a 5-2 opening-day victory over the Texas Rangers at Safeco Field.
Nobody’s saying that the Mariners are a small-ball team again like they were during their playoff seasons of 2000 and 2001. But it helped them convert their rare opportunities against Rangers starter Kevin Millwood and save their own starter, Erik Bedard, from a difficult loss after he struggled to get through five innings despite allowing only Michael Young’s first-inning homer.
The M’s got just six hits, but they drew seven walks.
“It’s hard to out-slug people every night,” manager John McLaren said. “You lose games 9-7, it takes something out of you. Our strategy is to get a lead and do whatever it takes to add on runs. Whatever it takes — hit-and-run, steal, bunt, squeeze, whatever.”
Monday, it was a hit-and-run that helped the Mariners overcome a 1-0 Rangers lead.
Ichiro Suzuki led off the bottom of the sixth with a scorching grounder to shortstop that Young couldn’t handle for an error. Lopez worked the count in his favor — another spring training emphasis — and McLaren flashed the hit-and-run sign.
Suzuki ran, Millwood threw a hard-to-hit fastball up and in, and Lopez somehow got enough of his bat on it to ground the ball toward the right side of the infield. Second baseman Ian Kinsler, who’d broken toward the bag when Suzuki took off, couldn’t get to the ball in time and the Mariners had runners on first and second with nobody out.
Raul Ibanez followed with a sharp single to right field, scoring Suzuki and sending Lopez to third. Adrian Beltre then grounded to shortstop and barely reached first to avoid an inning-ending double play, allowing Lopez to score. It gave the Mariners a 2-1 lead.
“That hit-and-run was huge,” Ibanez said. “That was a tough pitch, a running fastball up and in, 90-plus mph, and he got on top of it and hit it to the right side and something great happened.”
Then the Mariners pulled off something else they’ve talked about — adding on.
Kenji Johjima walked for the second time with one out in the seventh, went to second on Yuniesky Betancourt’s single and scored when Rangers reliever Kazuo Fukumori threw two wild pitches. The Rangers intentionally walked Suzuki and Lopez followed with a double down the left-field line, scoring Betancourt and Suzuki.
The Mariners had a 5-1 lead and their relief pitching lined up to protect it.
Sean Green followed Bedard and pitched 12⁄3 scoreless innings before Eric O’Flaherty gave up a run in one inning, making it 5-2.
Mark Lowe, the newly inserted eighth-inning reliever because of Brandon Morrow’s shoulder issues, used his mid-90 mph fastball to get a ground ball that stopped the Rangers in the eighth.
Then closer J.J. Putz worked around Young’s two-out single in the ninth, finishing the game with a strikeout of Josh Hamilton.
For one night, the Mariners won with a bullpen that rescued their struggling starter and just enough runs generated with their ability to put pressure on the defense.
“You’re not going to score 10 runs every night,” Ibanez said. “The nights you’re facing somebody’s ace, it sure is nice to set the game in motion and do the little things to aggravate the other team and put pressure on them. Holes open up and a routine ground ball turns into something huge.”
Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at www.heraldnet.com