Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and manager Scott Servais embrace before the start of the home opener at Safeco Field on Thursday in Seattle. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and manager Scott Servais embrace before the start of the home opener at Safeco Field on Thursday in Seattle. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

After a 16-year playoff drought, Opening Day is for optimism

Safeco Field was filled with people hoping this season will be different for the Mariners.

SEATTLE — It was the roar of a crowd that wants to believe.

The Seattle Mariners held their Opening-Day ceremonies prior to Thursday’s game against the Cleveland Indians at Safeco Field, and the last player introduced was none other than returning legend Ichiro Suzuki. The crowd rose to its feet in appreciation, maintaining top volume the entire time time Ichiro bounded down the red carpet running from the right-field gate to the infield dirt, then continuing as Ichiro greeted his coaches and teammates along the first-base line.

It was an emblematic opening-day moment. It didn’t matter that the biggest cheers were reserved for a 44-year-old outfielder who was picked up late in spring training as an injury replacement and who hasn’t been an impact player since 2010. This was Opening Day, and opening day is all about optimism.

“Everybody should be (optimistic),” Mariners manager Scott Servais said before the game. “Players come to spring training and they’ve worked all offseason getting in shape, maybe making adjustments to their game. We want to see how it plays out. Every one of those guys out there thinks this is their career year, their bust-out year.”

So optimism was in full bloom around Safeco Field on Thursday, from the manager to the players in the clubhouse to the packed house that braved the early-spring weather conditions to pay homage at Safeco Field.

Even if that optimism wasn’t necessarily warranted.

There sure didn’t seem to be an overwhelming sense of optimism among the fan base heading into the season, and it’s easy to understand why a Mariners fan may be a bit cynical. It’s been 16 years since Seattle last made the playoffs, giving the Mariners the longest active postseason drought among all teams in American major professional sports. That sensation, unfortunately, is all too familiar for longtime Seattle fans, who had to wait 19 years before their team made its first foray into the playoffs.

The offseason didn’t do a lot to alleviate those concerns, either. Seattle’s biggest problem last season was starting pitching, as the Mariners had 17 — seventeen! — different pitchers start a game in 2017. This offseason Seattle put all its eggs into the Shohei Ohtani basket, hoping the Japanese two-way sensation would be the latest star from the Land of the Rising Sun to use Seattle as a gateway to the majors. But Ohtani snubbed the Mariners in favor of the division-rival Los Angeles Angels, and Seattle chose not to add any other starters, meaning they’re banking heavily on a rebound season from an aging Felix Hernandez and a healthy season from an oft-injured James Paxton.

Oh, and speaking of division rivals, the Mariners also have to contend with 19 games against the World Series-champion Houston Astros, who will only be better this year with a full season of Justin Verlander at the top of the starting rotation.

But for at least one night, all those concerns were stashed away in the nightstand drawer by the crowd at Safeco Field. This was a night in which anything one imagined was possible.

“You have to be optimistic,” Servais said. “That’s what Opening Day is all about. It’s not going to be easy, we know who’s in our division and who we’re playing this weekend. But our team is ready to go and I feel good about it.”

Those good feelings certainly extended into Thursday’s game. Hernandez, coming off his worst season as a pro, showed glimpses of his past self, going 1-2-3 in the top of the first by inducing weak contact from all three batters, then striking out four during a scoreless first five innings. In the bottom of the first Nelson Cruz, continuing to defy his 37 years, hit the first pitch he saw in the 2018 season — off reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber — out to center for a two-run homer.

And when Ichiro came to bat leading off the top of the third it was like being transported back to 2001, as the I-CHI-RO chants echoed around the stadium. Even though he grounded out weakly to first base, he still received a standing ovation from the crowd.

The Mariners made sure there was no early mass exodus for the doors to get away from the chill.

No, one game isn’t an indicator of how a season will go, especially in a 162-game season. And yes, the questions about the Mariners still remain. But for one night those concerns were shoved to the side. This was Opening Day, and Opening Day is for believing.

Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.

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