It was a classic “Welcome to Seattle” moment, an All-Star showing his new team, and new town, the promise of better times ahead.
It was a big-name free agent rising to the moment with a game-changing three-run home run.
It was, contrary to the more expected — and sexier — story line, Corey Hart and not Robinson Cano.
But sure enough, it was Hart who brought the sellout crowd at Safeco Field to its feet in the third inning, and provided the first goose-bump moment of the 2014 home season.
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And, four innings later, the second. Cano’s debut had been trumped by Hart’s heroics.
Just when the electricity of a pregame tribute to the Super Bowl champion Seahawks was being replaced with restless stirring, Hart happened for the first time.
Falling behind 0-2 to erratic Angels starter Hector Santiago, he pounced on the next pitch and sent it soaring out of Safeco, a three-run home run that gave the Mariners a 4-3 lead. The resulting pandemonium may not have equaled the Seahawks’ ovation for extended love, but for a quick explosion of pent-up emotion, it was classic.
“So many guys on this team have been chipping in, and I haven’t been one of them,’’ Hart said afterward. “It was nice to find contact tonight and be able to help out. I’ve been getting kind of tired of watching everyone else help out.”
There was more help to come. Hart tomahawked a scorching liner in the fifth that turned into the Mariners’ first successful replay challenge of the season. It appeared left fielder Josh Hamilton had caught the ball, then dropped it on the transfer. That’s what third-base umpire Seth Buckminster ruled, but that call was overturned, and Hart awarded first base on what then became a Hamilton error.
In the seventh, Hart struck in a much more decisive fashion, sending another blast out of the ballpark off reliever Nick Maronde, stretching the M’s lead to 5-3, a score that held up.
“It was unbelievable,’’ Hart said. “I haven’t had a whole lot of good baseball moments lately. To be able to come out in front of the crowd … so many guys have been swinging the bat well. For me, I’ve just been trying to find a rhythm and get something going.”
On a night that wound up fraught with concern over the health of starter James Paxton, who left in the sixth with a lat strain, Hart’s power display was not able to be unreservedly savored.
But Hart is an intriguing figure for these ambitious Mariners, who are trying to show that they deserve more respect this season.
Cano signed his 10-year, $240 million deal on Dec. 12, complete with a jam-packed news conference. Hart’s signing, for a much more reasonable $6 million plus incentives over one year, was announced the next day, at a news conference that didn’t include Jay-Z.
From that moment, Hart has been, and remains, something of a mystery. At 32, he has outstanding credentials, including two seasons for the Brewers in excess of 30 homers and three others over 20.
But he also has been stymied by injuries — arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on March 6, 2012; a torn arch in his left foot in September of 2012; another right knee operation on Jan. 25, 2013; microfracture surgery on his right knee on March 6, 2013; microfracture surgery on his left knee on July 3, 2013.
It cost him all of last season, and his comeback this year has been further slowed by right forearm issues. And that’s on top of being one who traditionally struggles in spring training, making it hard, from the outside, to know whether he’s right on normal schedule, or a shell of his former self.
“Right now, it’s just timing,’’ Hart said reassuredly midway through spring training. “The speed of the game is quick right now just because it’s been 18 months between at-bats. I’m seeing the ball fine. I usually come in the spring and struggle anyway. Now I’m trying to come back and take as many at-bats as I can to get comfortable. I’m not worried. Once the season starts, I’m sure I’ll be ready to go.”
That has been a much-debated issue among Mariners’ fans. Hart, in theory, is precisely what the Mariners desperately need — right-handed power as a counterpoint to their left-handed dominant lineup. The Hart of old is a godsend for the Mariners, but the burning issue is whether his health has muted those abilities.
As the season slowly uncoils, Hart has shown enough flashes of that retro power to give hope that he can make it work. Of his four hits, three have left the yard, which is highly encouraging for someone who can be expected to still have rust from such a long layoff.
Manager Lloyd McClendon still believes Hart can play 140 games, as he stated in spring. Initially, McClendon thought he could do it in right field, but designated hitter seems a more likely home for Hart, at least early in the season.
That notion has been surrounded by some skepticism. But as those balls were leaving Safeco Field on Tuesday night, you could almost see some of that disappearing right along with them.
“I’m trying to work through things,’’ Hart said. “Right now, the biggest thing is trying to hit the baseball. It was nice to do it, especially opening night in front of the crowd.
“At least they know when it’s going good, it’s going good for me.”
|New Mariner Corey Hart hadn’t done much in his first four games with the Mariners. On Tuesday, he hit two home runs.|
|M’s first six||3-18||1||1|
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146