OAKLAND – Everything you needed to know about how the Mariners feel about Robinson Cano’s return after his 80-game drug suspension could be judged by the composition of the Coliseum interview room at the start of his media briefing Tuesday, ahead of his first game back with Seattle since May 13.
There were nearly as many Mariners as there were media members.
Ryon Healy, Dee Gordon, Jean Segura, Nelson Cruz, Mitch Haniger, Kyle Seager, Mike Zunino and others took up residence behind the press corps. They didn’t say anything, but seeing them brought a smile to Cano’s face.
It would be difficult to smile later. Cano had a single in four trips and played errorless defense, but the Mariners lost 3-2 to the A’s, a team they have to beat to make the postseason.
Earlier in the day Cano had met with most of the players on the roster, apologizing for having been away for so long after having been suspended for the use of a banned diuretic commonly used to mask steroid use.
“It means a lot to me. Thank you guys,” Cano said to the multitude at the back of the room. “It means a lot to me to see the way teammates support you. I really appreciate it. I didn’t expect this.”
He said the conversation with his teammates meant he “had to apologize, man-to-man.”
“I let the team down,” he said. “But for now, I don’t want to focus on the past. It’s about being positive, about moving on. The team is playing really good and the last thing I want is to be a distraction.”
The Mariners played slightly better with Cano gone, a .575 winning percentage against the .564 mark that they had when Cano had his hand broken by a pitch, two days before news of the suspension. He’s been healthy since about the first week of June. He’s been waiting, working out and, most recently, playing in some minor league games.
As he returns, the club is facing something of an uphill battle. The Mariners had to sweep four games against first-place Houston over the weekend to claw their way back into the American League West race. But losses to the A’s Monday and Tuesday left Seattle 4½ games behind Houston and 3½ games behind Oakland in what is shaping up as the best division race in baseball in 2018.
A quarter of the season remains. The Mariners can make the playoffs, sure, but it’s difficult to see them doing it without Cano.
Seattle needs Cano at his best. No one knows that more than the men who came to support him.
“He looks great,” Cruz said. “It’s good to have him back.”
Manager Scott Servais said, “It’s great to have the full squad back.”
To make room on the roster, RHP Casey Lawrence was sent to AAA Tacoma. Cano was in the lineup at first base. Gordon, who missed the past two games, returned to second base. Servais said Cano will play some at second, pushing Gordon to center and Healy off the bench to first base.
“I think everybody’s excited,” Servais said. “It’s been a long wait for Robbie, and we’ve played pretty well. We’ve hung in there and put ourselves in position where these games are very important. He’s anxious to get back out there and help us.”
That he is.
Tuesday he singled in the third inning, but was otherwise shackled. He made his first career start at first base, and made no obvious faux pas, but showed he needs to work on his stretch.
“It’s great to be back, especially the way the team is playing,” Cano said. “I was waiting for this moment. I have to give the team a lot of credit for playing so great. Now I hope that I can contribute. We all want to make it to the playoffs.”
Cano can’t make it to the playoffs. Under baseball rules, he’s suspended from any postseason action.
“I’m not going to play (in the postseason),” he said. “But I want to help the team make it to the playoffs.”
Others who have come back from suspensions have been greeted by derisive comments from fans. Cano says he’s ready for that.
“The last thing I want to do is focus on the fans who are saying anything,” he said. “My focus is the team. I’ve been through this before, like the All-Star Game in Kansas City. To be honest, that’s not going to bother me.”
Cano heard it good from KC fans in 2012. As the American League captain, he picked the team for the home run derby. The Royals fans didn’t like it much that he passed over then-Royals slugger Billy Butler. They booed Cano intensely.
“They can say whatever they want,” he said of the paying public. “It’s up to me (to ignore taunts). My goal is the team and not to focus on what people are going to say.”
One thing people will be talking about will be his acumen at first base, a position he’s never played in the big leagues, although he tuned up in the minors.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but I’ll go out and do my best,” he said. “No matter where they need me, I’ll be ready.”