The familiar rhythms of baseball are creeping back, and there’s an undeniable comfort in that, especially with all the unsettling disruptions of these past few months.
“Very relieving,’’ Seattle pitcher Marco Gonzales said during a Zoom video call. “I think we all had our doubts about getting to this point. For us to get back on the field and get real baseball in, it was a great feeling.”
But there’s also an arrhythmic aspect to Baseball 2020 that I suspect will never quite stop being jarring — led by the fact that Mariners’ opening day, which occurred Friday night in Houston with an all-too-familiar thud, took place after the originally scheduled All-Star Game.
The nearly four-month delay because of the coronavirus shutdown has whetted all our appetites, and at least for me is making the return to the diamond something to savor with an extra zeal.
But it was all the rhythms that were missing in action, especially those that play off the energy provided by fans in the seats, that were most keenly felt.
“It’s hard to explain,’’ Mariners manager Scott Servais said in his postgame Zoom news conference. “I think it’s something none of us ever imagined it would ever happen. We’re dealing with it the best we can.
“It’s just a different vibe, obviously, and it starts with batting practice. When you walk out, you’re on the road, and you’re playing a team that was in the World Series last year. And there’s nobody there. It’s just crazy. It’s a different feel. You get a big hit in the game, or even when you’re on the road and those guys make a big play or get a big hit, it’s quiet. It’s just different. It’s something we’ll get used to.’’
The Mariners will also have to get used to the bumps and bruises that come with being a young, theoretically growing team. Many of those flaws and shortcomings were readily apparent in their 8-2 loss to the Astros, who were playing their first game since the exposure of a vast and nefarious cheating operation.
Some suspected that the Mariners, the first team to get a crack at Houston in a game that counted, might make a statement on behalf of all the aggrieved teams. In baseball protocol, there’s a time-honored way to accomplish that. But there was nothing approaching a purpose pitch from Gonzales or the four relievers to follow.
The Mariners had enough to worry about against Justin Verlander, who at age 37 remains an elite pitcher. In six dominant innings, he faltered only twice, to the clobbering Kyles, giving up solo homers to Kyle Lewis in the first and Kyle Seager in the fourth.
Lewis’ blast was an electrifying moment that served as an early reminder of what this season will be about for Seattle — watching young players like Lewis attempt to emerge at the end as certifiable weapons for the Mariners moving forward.
One of the advantages of playing in empty, silent stadiums is that it allows for full amplification of exquisitely struck balls like that by Lewis, who caught a Verlander 95-mph fastball with full power. The percussive sound that resulted — and echoed through the stadium and over the television air waves — was a symphony for those of us who have missed such displays.
Yet it was what followed from Lewis that impressed Servais as much as the raw power, which we saw last year. After striking out in his next at-bat on three wicked sliders from Verlander, who had learned his lesson about challenging the kid, and again in his next at-bat, Lewis came up one final time. He hit a sizzling line-out to Jose Altuve at second.
Such an adjustment, said Servais, bodes well for the future of Lewis, who “is in a fantastic kind of head space … very calm,’’ according to the manager.
Other rookies — and the Mariners had four making their major league debut on Friday, the most for one team on opening day since 1957 — aspire to reach such a serene head space. The only way to get there is to forge ahead, bumps and all.
In the end, it was fielding lapses that started the Mariners’ demise after taking an early 2-1 lead. And it was the bullpen, a predicted weak point of this team, that let the game get away after a solid Gonzales start.
Gonzales admitted that the unique circumstances of 2020 baseball will take a little getting used to.
“It was different,’’ he said. “I think the buildup pregame, usually you get a little more juices flowing warming up. There’s times you notice it and times you don’t. When you lock into the plate and you go to make a big pitch, there’s still emotion, still adrenaline there. I don’t think there’s a lack of adrenaline.
“But in between innings and in between pitches, it’s a little bit different sound. But I don’t think it’s anything we can’t make normal for us.”
This year, the term “new normal” should be a leaguewide slogan. Eventually, we’ll get used to seeing players who aren’t in the game sitting in the stands. Or Mallex Smith stepping to the plate wearing a face mask. Or Dee Gordon helping to retrieve foul balls that clank around the empty seats.
That’s the new normal. Right now, I’m soothed by the old normal — a genuine baseball game with a blend of heroics and letdowns. It’s rhythm that remains timeless even in the most unsettling of times.