OAKLAND The elements have always been a huge part of baseball in April.
Usually its the rain or the wind. In the case of some of our cooler climes, the snow.
Generally the sun plays a lesser role in the outcome of Major League games played at this time of the year. But when Seattle tried to open the season with a third consecutive road win for the first time ever, it was the sun as much as the Oakland As that left the Mariners with a 7-1 loss.
All three Seattle outfielders, Milton Bradley in left, Ryan Langerhans in center and Ichiro Suzuki in right, had trouble finding balls hit in the air. Bradley lost one in the fourth inning that gave the As the go-ahead run against Seattle starter Doug Fister.
Langerhans lost one in the seventh when Oakland pushed across four, and later in that inning Ichiro got a bad read thanks to what players call a “high sky, the product of solar glare and bright blue sky.
Asked about the sky and the sun, Ichiro said, “It was impossible.
Langerhans said the Coco Crisp ball that befuddled him to open the seventh with rookie reliever Josh Lueke on the mound was “a ball I should have caught, but admitted that once the ball went into the sun, he never saw it again. The ball missed his glove by a foot or so.
“The thing that hurt is that it happened so late, Langerhans said. “Its tough like that. It was just in the last 10 or 20 feet that it got in there (the sun), and it never came out.
Ichiros troubles came on a ball hit by countryman Hideki Matsui on Japanese Heritage Day. Lueke had walked two batters after the Crisp double, loading the bases, then had struck out Josh Willingham. And it seemed like hed retired Matsui on a routine fly. However, Ichiro didnt catch sight of the ball immediately as it soared, and it wound up landing in front of him by about five feet rather than landing in his glove.
“I dont think he ever saw it, Lueke said of Ichiro.
That ball made the score 4-1 at the time, and the game imploded on the Mariners from that point on. Seattle had sent the top of its lineup, Ichiro and Chone Figgins, to the plate in the top of the seventh with the tying runs on base. Nothing happened of note, and the Mariners never got that chance again.
“We had some chances, manager Eric Wedge said. “We had the tying runs on base there in the seventh, we didnt score, and the next time we hit we were down by (six) runs. Thats baseball.
The Mariners only got one really good swing at Oakland left-hander Geo Gonzalez. That came from Langerhans in the second when he launched Seattles second homer of the spring out to right. Seattle had runners in scoring position in five of the other six innings Gonzales spent on the mound, but nothing came from any of those opportunities.
So Seattle came out of its first series of the season with a couple of wins and reason to feel generally good about the quality of its performance. The Mariners averaged four runs and eight hits per game and the pitchers put together a 3.46 ERA. If those performances could be stretched over a season, the Mariners could be competitive in the American League West.
A good measure of just how competitive the Mariners can be or if they can be will come this week in a Monday-through-Wednesday series against the defending American League champion Rangers in Arlington, Texas. The Red Sox tried the Rangers in Arlington over the weekend and Boston, universally seen as a team superior to Seattle, got swept, with Texas running up a 26-11 cumulative score.
Still, for the first weekend of the season, the Mariners have to feel reasonably satisfied with what theyd accomplished against and Oakland team that was the sexy surprise pick by many pundits to win the West.
There was a very nice moment in the bottom of the second when Matsui doubled down left field line, the 2,500th hit of his professional career combined in Japan and in North America. It was well saluted by the Japanese Heritage Day crowd of 22,292, then on the next play, Kurt Suzuki, the Oakland catcher, lined a ball to medium-deep right.
Ichiro caught the ball and Matsui lit out for third. It was, in the vernacular, no contest. Ichiros bullet throw, which brought back reminders to some of Ichiros coming-out throw on April 11, 2001, was a one-hop laser to third baseman Figgins. The April 11th throw is still seen on highlight films when Ichiro, then new to the majors, gunned down Oakland outfielder Terrence Long at third base, signaling that youd better not challenge his arm.
And Matsui, smiling after the wins, admitted it was a fools errand to test Ichiro, but he said the circumstances were special.
“I know the strength of his arm, and usually I dont run in those situations, Matsui said in good humor. “But I knew it was Japanese Heritage Day. I took a chance, and unfortunately it didnt quite work out.
No, not quite.
But by days end, the sun was shining, warming the As and blinding the Mariners.