It should have been a full-on celebration. With a sold-out crowd of 45, 661 jammed into Safeco Field on a less-than-frigid Tuesday night, the Mariners made their home opener an enjoyable victory for fans, rolling to a 5-3 triumph, thanks to a pair of Corey Hart home runs.
The free agent designated hitter/outfielder was signed to a one-year contract to be a presence in the middle of the order to protect fellow free-agent signee Robinson Cano. Injuries had slowed his progress in spring training and have disrupted his timing and rhythm at the plate.
It all came together in his first game at Safeco Field. With the Mariners trailing 3-1 in the third inning, Hart crushed a three-run homer off of Angels starter Hector Santiago onto the roof of Edgar’s Cantina in left field to put the Mariners up for good. He added a little insurance in the seventh inning, blasting a solo homer off reliever Nick Maronde over the wall in center field.
“Corey was fabulous,” Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon said. “Tonight he showed those quick hands. I was really happy for him because I know he’s been battling the whole time and really fighting himself a little bit.”
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Add in a Justin Smoak run-scoring single and the pomp and circumstance of opening night, and it should have been a perfect evening.
But the sight of talented starter James Paxton walking off the mound accompanied by trainer Rob Nodine and McClendon with no outs in the sixth inning dampened the overall mood. Paxton had given up a single to Kole Calhoun to start the sixth and then threw one pitch to Mike Trout and made an awkward shaking motion with his arm, which caught McClendon’s attention.
Nodine and McClendon came out to check on him and Paxton motioned to the back of his arm. That was it for his night.
The Mariners later announced Paxton suffered a strain latissmus dorsi. He will be re-evaluated Wednesday.
“They will do a (magnetic resonance imaging) tomorrow,” McClendon said. “And we’ll know more at that time.”
Paxton said he felt something during the final hitter of the fifth inning.
“I felt a little tweak,” he said. “I felt fine in between innings so I didn’t think it was anything. I threw the cutters to Calhoun and that was fine. But I felt it again when I threw the fastball to Trout.”
It wasn’t a shooting pain.
“Something just didn’t feel right,” he said. “You want to be careful this time of the year. You don’t want to push it too far.”
The biggest fear is a recurrence of what happened with reliever Stephen Pryor last season. Pryor was diagnosed with a strained lat on April 14 and never pitched again. But Pryor’s strain eventually turned into a tear.
Placing that same level of damage on Paxton is premature.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a big deal,” he said. “It’s not real pain. Just a little soreness.”
But expect the Mariners to be ultra careful with his recovery. They took similar action when Taijuan Walker had shoulder issues this spring. Paxton’s best pitching days for the organization are still ahead of him.
Still, any injury to Paxton, no matter what the length of time he’s out, will be difficult for a Mariners organization that’s already thin on starting pitching. Paxton was scheduled to start Sunday in the homestand finale.
They can slide veteran Chris Young back into the rotation quite easily. Young had his Friday start in Oakland skipped because of a postponement. McClendon then moved him to a long relief role because of multiple off days this week, so Young is stretched out and ready to pitch. Meanwhile Blake Beavan, who is scheduled to start Thursday for Tacoma, or veteran Zach Miner could be promoted to fill the long relief spot.
The premature end spoiled a start for Paxton that showed plenty of moxie. With butterflies in his stomach and pitching in front of a packed Safeco Field for the first time, Paxton started off in regrettable fashion.
After giving up a one-out single to Trout, he left a fastball up at the belt that Albert Pujols deposited off the scoreboard above the bullpen in left field for a two-run homer. Two pitches later, Paxton left a change-up up in the zone and David Freese hit it over the wall in center field for a solo homer for a 3-0 lead.
“I was a little excited with what was going on,” Paxton said. “I left some pitches up and when you mistakes to hitters that good, they are going to make it hurt.”
But after that mistake to Freese, Paxton retired the next 14 hitters he faced, including five by strikeout, before Calhoun singled to start the sixth.
“I just started working down in the zone,” Paxton said.
His teammates even set him up to be in line for the victory.
Justin Smoak drove in his ninth run of the season with a sharp run-scoring single up the middle in the third. For the sake of perspective, last season Smoak didn’t get his ninth RBI until June 18.
Hart followed with the three-run homer on a 1-2 count to give the Mariners the lead for good.
The Mariners bullpen worked four scoreless innings of relief, though they all weren’t pretty. In the ninth inning, Fernando Rodney walked the first two hitters he faced — Pujols and Freese — drawing a conversation with McClendon. What was said?
“I can’t tell you that,” McClendon said with a chuckle.
With everyone sufficiently anxious, Rodney came back to strike out Ian Stewart and Howie Kendrick and get Raul Ibanez to fly out to end the game and notch his second save.
|Paxton by the numbers|
|James Paxton settled down after allowing three runs in the first inning Tuesday. Paxton, who left the game in the sixth inning with a lat strain, has beaten the Angels twice this season.|
|Category||Game 1||Game 2|
|Score||M’s, 8-2||M’s, 5-3|
Ryan Divish: 206-464-2373 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @RyanDivish