TOKYO — The first of 162 games in a season is far from indicative of how the next 161 will play out.
And yet, in this first game of the 2019 Major League Baseball season, which was played while much of the United States was still dreaming of “opening day” next week when the rest of teams start in earnest, there was enough to see from the Mariners in their 9-7 victory over the Athletics to make something more than assumptions about this team.
- This team will see some pitches and take some walks.
- This team will hit some homers.
- This team won’t be outstanding defensively.
- The bullpen’s success is a total guess.
Given the Mariners’ roster design, all of these things were expected going into the season and evident in the first game.
A year ago, a projected lineup that featured Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger was expected to be one of the best in the American League at scoring runs.
Instead, it massively underachieved with only Haniger and Segura, and Cruz to a lesser extent, putting together solid seasons. The inability to get on base consistently and generate runs led to their July-August demise and their fall from a postseason spot that seem assured in June.
With Seager on the injured list for likely the first two months of the season, Haniger is the only player who returns from that group. But he’s far from alone. The Mariners added Domingo Santana, Edwin Encarnacion and Jay Bruce to hit in the middle of the order. All three players have hit 30 homers or more in a season in their careers.
A year ago, Santana lost his starting spot when the Brewers acquired Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain on the same day in the offseason. He wallowed on the bench and struggled with sporadic at-bats. The Mariners acquired him from the Brewers for outfielder Ben Gamel and will play him almost every day in left field. Following an outstanding spring, Santana displayed his freakish power to the opposite field Wednesday. With the bases loaded and the Mariners trailing 2-1, he crushed a fastball away from A’s starter Mike Fiers for a grand slam to right and a 5-2 lead.
“Home runs are great,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “The grand slam gave us a lot of energy in the dugout, and we felt good where we were at in the ballgame.”
Gamel can’t pull the ball as far as Santana hit the homer to the opposite field.
“It was a heater middle away, and I just stayed on it and got the barrel on it,” he said. “Especially with runners in scoring position, I’m just trying to put a good swing on it.”
With two outs and runners on first and second, Encarnacion worked a walk instead of chasing at a low pitch out of the strike zone in a 3-2 count. That discipline gave Santana the opportunity to get to the plate.
“It was a huge walk,” Santana said. “He battled him and fouled off some good pitches.”
The Mariners made Fiers throw 32 pitches in the inning, which basically torpedoed his pitch count and ended his outing.
Seattle worked six walks in the game and forced Oakland pitchers to throw 170 pitches.
“Putting this group together, one of the things we stressed all spring training is to control the strike zone, working deep counts,” Servais said. “We’ve got a group of guys that are really good at doing it. And I think you saw it play out tonight. Extending innings and extending at-bats is really important. It’s something we believe in, and we’ve got guys capable of doing it.”
A year ago, the Mariners had a 7.1 percent walk rate as a team, which ranked 27th in all of MLB. But Bruce (9.3), Encarnacion (11.1), Santana (11.0) and Omar Narvaez (12.3) all have decent career walk rates to help offset Dee Gordon (4.0), Ryon Healy (4.4) and Tim Beckham (6.3)
In the fifth inning, Encarnacion’s leadoff walk started a three-run rally that was capped by Beckham crushing a two-run homer to left-center off Ryan Dull to make it 9-3.
The nine runs of support while he was on the mound was enough for starter Marco Gonzales, who pitched six innings, giving up four runs on seven hits with a walk and four strikeouts. Though he threw only 69 pitches, the goal was for Gonzales to pitch five to six innings, given the team’s truncated spring training. He worked the last three innings of his outing without allowing a run.
“I’m always going to want another inning,” Gonzales said. “The competitor in me says yes, but I understand where we are at in the season. This is the first one. It’s something to build off of.”
Gonzales gave up a solo homer in the first inning to Stephen Piscotty and a two-run homer to Khris Davis in the third inning. A throwing error by Healy on what should have been a double play led to another run.
The Mariners weren’t expected to be a particularly great defensive team going into the season before Seager suffered a hand injury during spring training, but his absence creates a serious void. By metrics and scouting, Narvaez at catcher, the trio of Bruce, Encarnacion and Daniel Vogelbach at first base, Beckham at shortstop, Santana in left field, Bruce when he plays left field, Healy filling in at third and Mallex Smith when he returns to center field are all considered below-average defenders. That’s not ideal for a pitching staff that doesn’t generate many swings and misses, particularly from its starting rotation.
And the bullpen, well, that was a total unknown going into the season. Neither general manager Jerry Dipoto nor Servais knew quite what to expect from a group that lost Edwin Diaz, Alex Colome, Juan Nicasio, Nick Vincent and James Pazos.
That uncertainty has only grown with the injuries sidelining right-handers Anthony Swarzak (shoulder impingement), Gerson Bautista (pec strain) and Shawn Armstrong (oblique strain) for the start of the season.
The Mariners know they can give the ball to Hunter Strickland in the ninth and use Zac Rosscup and possibly Cory Gearrin as late-inning choices. But those middle innings need to be covered. Servais tried out right-hander Nick Rumbelow in the seventh with a five-run cushion. Instead, he issued a leadoff walk, gave up a single, got a strikeout and served up a three-run homer to Matt Chapman to destroy a good portion of the cushion.
That trio of Gearrin, Rosscup and Strickland — the most experienced relievers on the active roster — worked the final two innings to stop the drama. Strickland looked dominant in the bottom of the ninth, working a 1-2-3 frame for his first save as a member of the Mariners.