Hope Springs Eternal: Seattle Mariners Open Season with Win over Oakland Athletics in Japan; Next Stop World Series?
The Seattle Mariners are in first place in the A.L. West. The Seattle Mariners, are in first place, in the A.L West?
That’s not a phrase we’ve grown accustomed to hearing over the last decade, and it isn’t one we’ll likely hear much more this year (although thanks to the quirky scheduling of MLB the M’s will hold at least a share of the division lead until at least April 5th), but it does feel good to say, no matter the qualifiers.
It wasn’t a convincing win by any means (unless it convinced you that the Mariners will struggle to score runs for Felix again), and you can’t take too much away from one game, but Seattle’s 3-1 win did allow us to form some early impressions:
- Eric Wedge micromanages like I play croquet; he doesn’t. The stubborn skipper left Michael Saunders in to face a tough lefty in Brian Fuentes (not physically tough mind you, he looks pretty doughy, but he does hold lefties to a .078 lower OPS than righties) rather than going to the bench for Casper Wells. It doesn’t cost the Mariners this game, and I’m not asking Wedge to suddenly turn into Tony LaRussa, but it would be nice to see him play the match-ups a bit more frequently.
- The heart of the order needs to perform more like a heart, and less like an appendix. Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero, and Mike Carp combined to go 0-13 at the plate last night in a showing far too reminiscent of the nightmare that was last year’s 4-5-6 hitters. Yes it’s just one game, but an already dwindling fan base isn’t going to put up with another season of 2-1 losses and weeks without home runs.
- The Oakland A’s sold out a home game! Yes, Oakland was the home team in Japan. No, they won’t sell out another home game this year (other than tonight’s second game in Japan). So long Oakland, hello San Jose!
- Dustin Ackley is the West Coast version of Chase Utley. The Mariners second baseman showed the world (or at least everyone awake at 3 a.m.) why so many baseball pundits had high hopes for him coming into the season. The second overall pick in the 2009 draft clobbered a home run to right-center off noted ground baller Brandon McCarthy, stole a base, and drove in the go-ahead run in the win. He’s got some work to do on defense, but that Ackley cat can flat-out hit.
- The Mariners run the bases, like they’ve never been on base. Maybe it was just early season jitters last night, but the Mariners had a pair of base running gaffes (Michael Saunders getting thrown out at third on a ball hit in front of him and Brendan Ryan getting caught stealing second) that a team with limited run scoring ability can’t afford to make.
- Ichiro isn’t finished just yet. The least prototypical number three hitter in baseball thrilled the crowd in his home country with four hits including a key RBI single in the 11th. The 38-year-old Suzuki struggled mightily in 2011, and a strong year from the M’s elder statesman could go along way towards a turnaround season for Los Marineros in 2012.
What new things will we learn about the Mariners in game two of this whirlwind ride known as the 2012 season? Tune in to Root Sports at 2 a.m. tomorrow morning to find out!
Song of the Week: “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand” by Primitive Radio Gods
Title: Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand
Artist: Primitive Radio Gods
Release: June 1996
Did You Know: This one hit wonder gained fame after being featured in the “Cable Guy” soundtrack before it was released as a single. The song heavily samples “How Blue Can You Get” by B.B. King, who is conveniently performing at the Northern Quest Casino on Saturday, May 5th. No, I’m not getting paid to write that! I’m offended you would even think such a thing! But if you do go to the show and mention this blog, that would be great. K thanks bye.
Michael Saunders would like to forget that 2011 ever happened.
Would anyone blame him?
The Mariners centerfielder struggled all season long with Seattle, hitting .149 and striking out a whopping 56 times in just 161 at-bats for the big league club.
If the numbers weren’t bad enough, the way Saunders failed only exacerbated his, and Mariners’ fans, frustrations.
The bat rarely left his shoulder, and when it did, Saunders looked like he was swinging under water. Weak ground outs and pop ups, check swing strikeouts, and too many called third strikes to count.
He wasn’t just failing, he was imploding, and fans could see the young ballplayer unraveling at the seams. Little did they know the extent of Saunders struggles…
Off the field, his mother, Jane, was losing her 13-year battle with cancer. Michael had a special relationship with his mom, who was in attendance at Safeco Field on Mother’s Day 2010 when Saunders hit his first major league home run. Jane finally lost her battle with cancer in August, and Michael was granted an extended leave of absence by the Mariners to spend time with his family.
After six weeks away from baseball, Saunders returned to Triple-A Tacoma and hit well, posting a .864 OPS for the Rainiers. It looked like the Condor had finally turned a corner and was ready to take flight, but he came crashing back down to earth when he returned to the Mariners in September.
In 24 at-bats after being recalled by Seattle, Saunders collected just one hit (.042 BA) and struck out 11 times. There’s a difference between patience and passiveness at the plate, and Saunders was so timid that it looked like he didn’t even want to be there. Mariners fans yelled at their TVs, pleading with Saunders to swing, just swing, but nothing they said could clear his Ayers Rock-sized mental block.
The season ended, and Saunders struggles mercifully disappeared into the darkness of winter. Franklin Gutierrez would be back in 2012, and there was Casper Wells and Trayvon Robinson too. He’d been given every chance to succeed with the Mariners, and squandered them all like the prodigal son. Saunders was destined to be forgotten; another failed Mariners prospect in an overflowing pile of unfulfilled expectations.
Spring rolled around and Saunders reported to camp with talk of a new swing. It didn’t matter much at the time; plenty of players show up to spring training with a “new approach at the plate” or in “the best shape of their life” and it usually it amounts to a hill of beans. Besides, he was buried on the depth chart and ticketed for another season in Tacoma; who cared what his swing looked like?
Then, as quickly as it had been dismissed, his new swing suddenly mattered a whole lot. Franklin Gutierrez, the surefire Opening Day starter, suffered a tear in his pectoral muscle and Saunders, the player who had appeared to run out of opportunities, was suddenly front and center.
Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! If confidence had a sound, it was the noise the ball made as it met Saunders’ suddenly potent bat. He was no longer on the defensive at the plate, he was in attack mode and lasering base hits to all fields. The browbeaten boy of 2011 was gone; in his place stood a self-assured man with something to prove.
As the Mariners travel to Japan to open the season against the Oakland Athletics on March 28th, Saunders isn’t just the starter in center by default, he’s earned it.
The Condor has risen from the ashes of seasons past and spread his wings, knowing this year might finally be his last chance.
He just can’t let this one go by like another called third strike…