As sweet introductions go, the Mariners’ home opener Thursday was right up there with chocolate meeting peanut butter. Either that, or it’s a step-back season for the world champion Boston Red Sox.
A team with zero expectations met a team with every expectation. So, of course, the Mariners won 12-4 (box) while blasting Chris Sale, one of the game’s best pitchers. Big deals are not supposed to be made of such early anomalies. But since it happened during the home opener, caution and restraint are legally set aside for giddiness and whimsy.
Especially for the 2019 Mariners, who let it be known months ago they were exiting the freeway to take surface streets. Building toward a future title, yadda yadda.
The rationale tends to be lost on players, who cover their ears and shout la-la-la whenever the topic is raised. They were hired to play ball, not to re-litigate four playoff seasons in 43 years.
“That’s on the front office,” said newcomer SS Tim Beckham. “We’re ballplayers. We play the game at 7:05 or 4:10 today. We had a lot of productivity, but it’s expected. As far as the rebuild, we leave that to the front office.”
The coping mechanism is working marvelously for Beckham, who as an 18-year-old was the first pick in the first round of the 2008 draft, and knows a little something about diminished expectations.
The Mariners signed him to a one-year contract as a free agent Jan. 10, and now he’s Mr. March. He covered 847 feet Thursday with two home runs off Sale, against whom he was a career 0-for-15. He drove in three runs and is hitting .583, including the two wins in Tokyo against Oakland when he went 6-for-8 and had another home run.
As a partial result, the Mariners are upon only the fourth 3-0 start in their history, delighting in the discovery that their new T-Mobile Park, where a sellout crowd of 45,601 saw five home runs among 12 hits, is a much more friendly hitter’s park than the old Safeco Field.
Beckham plays like a dude who wants more than a temp gig in Seattle, but wouldn’t confirm he’s tried to re-claim the regard that was lost after four seasons in Tampa and two in Baltimore.
“Baseball is hard enough as it is,” he said. “I don’t want to come out, think about a good start, and press about it. I just play loose and have fun with the game.
“What you saw tonight was a thing that defines our team.”
While such a sweeping generalization might be a tad premature, the Mariners can take some pride in the fact that they didn’t let messy spring training logistics work into an excuse for a slow start. No one will say it, but the week-long sojourn to to Japan for Ichiro’s farewell was a collective pain in the butt, even though it turned out well.
Starting pitcher Marco Gonzales, the day’s other star who worked his way around the robust Red Sox lineup to hold them to four runs on nine hits in 5.1 innings, said a positive approach about the trip paid off.
“Going in, I thought about that trip being a good team-bonding experience for all of us,” he said. “I think everyone would agree that’s exactly what happened. The last game in Tokyo, seeing Ichiro retire, that really inspired a lot of passion into us.
“We have a clubhouse full of guys who truly love what they do.”
Gonzales justified the decision of manager Scott Servais, who broke from the 10-year Seattle tradition of starting Felix Hernandez in the home opener.
“The Red Sox are really good — it’s a tough assignment first time out,” Servais said of Gonzales. “He was on the edge, trying to find what’s working, and minimizing damage with a one-spot” of runs in the first two innings.
A Colorado native who attended Gonzaga, Gonzales had a load of family and friends in the stands.
“Very special,” he said. “A lotta Zags. I was trying to walk a line between enjoying the moment and understanding what it is, and pitching a ballgame. I did a little better job tonight than I did in Tokyo.
“It was something I was waiting for, for a long time. Ever since I knew I’d get this game, I knew it would be something special. I came ready to go.”
The outcome was even more unlikely than the uncommonly pleasant late-March weather. Servais seemed to enjoy the moment of confounding.
“A lot’s been written about the direction we’re taking the organization,” he said. “A lot’s been said internally too — we do like our team.
“It’s a different look, I get that, not the household names people are used to. But these guys can play. As the season goes along, the fans will have plenty of guys to latch on to. There’s a lot of personality on this team.
“These guys have things to prove.”
They’ve proven they are so far the best team on either side of the Pacific Ocean, and own March like a chew toy. Small feats, to be sure, but it’s the home opener, where perspective has no business.