Giddiness was sufficiently rampant in the Mariners clubhouse Sunday afternoon that a visitor’s head needed to be on a swivel to take it all in.
There was the celebration of starting pitcher Brandon Maurer’s first career win. The menu included ice water, beer, milk and ketchup in magnum quantities, served starting at the top of the 6-foot-5 rookie’s head.
“I am,” he said, grinning during an interview, “still shivering.”
There was the gentler appreciation of beleaguered Dustin Ackley having a big hit, a sixth-inning single that drove in the game-winning RBI. Then there was Raul Ibanez, whose solo home run in the fourth was overshadowed by a high chopper to first base that he beat out for a single in the seventh.
Dunno if baseball keeps track of infield hits per 40-year-olds, but until informed otherwise, the belief is that Ibanez is now the American League leader.
“I tried to run down there like my hair that I don’t have was on fire,” said a smiling Ibanez, moving into literary worlds reserved in baseball for Yogi Berra and Rickey Henderson. “Hustle isn’t expensive.”
Perhaps the premier feeling is the overall warmth that came on a 48-degree day from winning 4-3 and splitting a four-game series with the Texas Rangers despite the absence of the entire starting outfield.
“Baby steps,” manager Eric Wedge called the group effort. He was careful to avoid giddiness because earlier in the week, the Mariners lost two games to the woebegone Houston Astros by a combined score of 24-12, a palm-to-forehead episode that nearly decapitated what remains of the fan base.
Then again, the best news may well have been that they have Monday off. It’s the first break since mid-spring training, and brief at that, because they begin another 16 games in a row starting with a visit from the Detriot Tigers Tuesday. As with everything in baseball right now, it is early to be tired, but the Mariners have been handed an irritating itinerary by the schedule-makers, especially for a team that annually puts on travel miles second only to the international space station.
Asked what words he he had for the powers who created the chore, Wedge caught himself.
“I’m going to save myself a fine,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The nature of the win helped tamp the fire in Wedge. His rookie starter looked like the guy who dazzled in spring training — six innings, three runs, five hits and five strikeouts — and three vexing youngsters, Ackley, Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero, came through.
“This is the way I envisioned things,” Wedge said. “The vets doing what they do and the young guys continuing to progress.
“This is the way it should happen and I expect it to happen.”
For one game, anyway. The Mariners opened with a lineup whose final six batters all were hitting below .190, in part due to the absences of outfielders Franklin Gutierrez (groin strain), Mike Morse (cracked pinky) and Michael Saunders (sprained shoulder, 15-day disabled list). Wedge is hopeful about Gutierrez and Morse coming back Tuesday, but Sunday required the wee three to do something.
Smoak responded first, getting his first extra-base hit of the season, after eight singles, by doubling down the left field line in the second. He promptly came home on a double by Kyle Seager.
Down 3-2 to the Rangers in the sixth, Seager, off to a slow start himself, hit another double (now batting .204) with one out. Montero plated him with a broken-bat bloop single into right, from where Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz threw so wildly to home that Montero made it to second. Then Ackley delivered with a single to center that brought in Montero with what proved to be the winning run, thanks to airtight bullpen work from Bobby LaFramboise, Stephen Pryor, Oliver Perez and Tom Wilhelmsen.
Hitting .108 before Sunday and retooling his stance, Ackley said that the offensive margins are small for the Mariners (6-8) to overcome.
“I think you can see the hits we’re capable of getting in bigger situations,” he said. “That’s all we’ve been away from winning ball games lately, is one hit or two hits. Today we showed that we can do that.”
Maurer took the bigger leap, finally putting away the major league jitters that compromised his first two starts.
”He was much more in control today,” Wedge said. “More at ease, more comfortable out there and obviously his stuff played out. He’s going through a lot of firsts, as everybody does when they get to the big leagues, especially for a starting pitcher.
”He was noticeably different today.”
It will take much longer for fans — a modest 16,981 showed at Safeco for a sunny day — to come together, what with the emotional scar from the Astros still glowing red. But for what it’s worth in mid-April, the Mariners are 4-4 against the two best teams in the AL West.
It’s not enough for the paying public to join in with celebratory ice baths of ice water, beer, milk and ketchup. But when you’re 22 and a first-time major league winner, it doesn’t get better.
Reliever Stephen Pryor continued his dominance with four outs while giving up only a walk, but strained a lat (chest) muscle on his final pitch in the seventh and had to come out. Entering the game, he pitched six innings and allowed no runs, no walks, three hits and had five strikeouts. Wedge said the extent of the injury won’t be known until a Monday exam . . . Wedge said pre-game he hopes to get Gutierrez back: “With the off-day, I’m hoping he’s come far enough along so he’s not in harm’s way. The concern is we’ve already lost two outfielders. We can’t afford to lose another one. But how hard do I want to push that with two other outfielders down? It’s a slippery slope.”
Nicely put, that. Brought the usual head shakin’ smile. ‘Specially the Ibanez part. Is the space station still flying, BTW?
OK, the M’s win a game.
Six, actually. Would have been more but for the hated rival Astros arriving so soon on the schedule.
There’s some good things to discern from the M’s start. Smoak is much more patient at the plate than last year. Hopefully Ackley will find his groove now. Last season was a real disappointment for him. Looks like Montero and Seager might also start warming up now as well. I’m wondering if this young club might be guilty of taking the Astros for granted when they came into town? And the Astros were aware of that? There’s a lesson to be learned there if that’s the case.
With a payroll of $25M, the Astros will be taken lightly by everyone all year. Two bad pitching starts was the source of the debacle, which could have happened against anyone.
This team has yet to play up to its potential, which is exasperating for everyone. They still have played even with Oakland and Texas despite the lack of production from the youngsters and the injuries. I doubt if this single game can be a turning point but the kids are going to run out of rope if they keep it up. The Tigers are going to be a test for them for sure.
Rarely in a 162-game season is there a single turning point. The young guys’ failure to hit consistently is annoying, but when day games start at 48 degrees and get colder, it actually makes a small d-d-d-d-difference.
I wonder if the cold weather gives them advantage in playing teams from warm weather cities, since the Ms should be used to it. It didn’t help much with the Astros. I doubt if any such advantage will exist with the Tigers either. Clutching at straws here, it’s just there is no rational reason all the kids tanking with bats in their hands. Maybe they are cursed, as opposed to cursed at.