Richie Sexson's maddeningly unproductive spring, it turns out, was a big tease. All those long, lumbering swings? The unavoidable offshoot of...

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Richie Sexson’s maddeningly unproductive spring, it turns out, was a big tease.

All those long, lumbering swings? The unavoidable offshoot of standing 6 feet 8 and needing the full six weeks to synchronize the complicated motions that propel his bat through the strike zone.

All those quick 0-2 and 1-2 counts that seemed to sentence him to uncomfortable at-bats in the Cactus League? At least partly the result of a diabolical little game that hitting coach Jeff Pentland challenged his hitters to play in Arizona.

“Some of the veterans were taking strikes every at-bat, just to work on being deep in the count, seeing what they can do with one or two strikes,” Pentland said. “Richie and I talked about it — we were kind of setting them up.”

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Just ask Dan Haren and the Oakland Athletics, who saw Sexson destroy their last semblance of hope on a day that Felix Hernandez ruled supreme at Safeco Field.

Sexson’s three-run home run in the sixth inning off Haren turned a 1-0 lead into a 4-0 lead that must have seemed like 400-0 to Oakland.

“Give Felix a run or two the way he was pitching, and the game was pretty well over,” Sexson said.

Funk blasts

Richie Sexson has hit three home runs in his three opening-day games with the Mariners.

2007 Sexson blasted a three-run home run in the sixth inning off Oakland starter Dan Haren.

2006 Sexson was 0 for 4 in a 5-4 loss to the Angels.

2005 Sexson drove in all five runs in the Mariners’ 5-1 victory over the Twins, hitting home runs his first two at-bats against Brad Radke.

Of all the necessities for the Mariners in this season where the worst-case scenario would be disastrous, a consistently crushing Sexson ranks near the top.

Manager Mike Hargrove correctly notes that Sexson’s track record indicates he can be penciled in for his usual 35 to 40 homers and 100 to 120 runs batted in.

Yet the Mariners can ill-afford as ragged a start as Sexson had last year, when he was still mired at .200 in mid-June.

Sexson knows it, which is why he took a scant two weeks off after the season, hoping to maintain his momentum from the second half. That’s when his work with Pentland began to click, when he stopped lunging at pitches, when the preaching of patience, patience, patience took hold.

“People told me I had a great last month,” said Sexson. “I felt I had a great second half. I watched a lot of video from the second half. Those things certainly feel like they’ve carried over.”

It might have seemed to the outside world that this spring marked a regression. Sexson was, after all, 0 for 18 to start the Cactus League, and finished with just two extra-base hits in 59 at-bats.

But Sexson was looking for more subtle signs, and he found them. The swing began to feel grooved in the final two weeks, even if the results didn’t reflect it. The gambit of taking strikes, of working on hitting the ball up the middle, convinced him — and his manager — that the average was irrelevant, because the mind-set was solid.

So when Sexson stepped up in the sixth Monday with two outs, runners on first and third after Raul Ibanez’s sacrifice fly, Haren trying desperately to limit the damage of shortstop Bobby Crosby’s second error, he was ready.

Haren started him out with a sinker, a pitch that had worked for him all day. But on 1-1, Sexson decided to sit on slider, which Haren had used with great effect against him in the first baseman’s first two at-bats.

“I took a chance and got a pitch out over the plate,” Sexson said.

One game, of course, does not a trend make, as was pointed out repeatedly on Monday.

One vital home run on opening day doesn’t mean that Sexson will carry the Mariners to the promised land, any more than the two home runs he hit on that magical first day as a Mariner in 2005 meant he would be struggle-free that year.

He wasn’t. Throughout his career, Sexson has always been markedly better in the second half. But he believes that he has done what he can to change that trend.

“There were times last year I was trying to do too much early on,” he said. “We were playing OK in the first half, not as good as we could have, and I was trying to hit a three-run home run with nobody on. You can’t do that.”

On Monday, in the first game of the grueling grind that is a baseball season, Sexson hit a three-run homer with two on. It guarantees nothing, but it bodes well for a season in which Sexson, like many others, must perform.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or

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