A few days ago, the column on the Mariners’ home opener seemed inevitable regardless of the result: If there was ever a year in which fans couldn’t be present, this was it.
The star power had all but evaporated, as had the connection with longtime Mariners such as Felix Hernandez. And enthusiasm appeared equally muted, with club general manager Jerry Dipoto declaring before the season that 2020 would not be a year in which Seattle contends for a playoff spot.
Just who, exactly, would fans roar for in the pregame introductions? Who in T-Mobile Park would ignore logic and think this squad could actually do something?
But that was a few days ago. Friday was different. If there is one quality that a home opener generally offers fans it’s hope, and at the moment — however transient that moment may be — the Mariners are serving their supporters a hearty helping of hope.
It was only Tuesday that the Mariners were 1-4 and seemed destined for doom before they even made it back to Seattle. One of the potential benefits of this 60-game season is that it allows talent-challenged teams to be in postseason contention in the final month if they construct anything resembling a hot streak.
Given that the sabermetrics site Fangraphs ranked the M’s as the second-worst team in MLB before opening day, the succinct schedule seemed like it might work to the Mariners’ advantage. And after Friday, hey … that still could be the case.
Now winners of three straight, the Mariners (4-4) hung on to beat Oakland, 5-3, in their home opener. They enjoyed a majestic performance from starting pitcher Taijuan Walker, who allowed no runs, one hit and two walks while striking out eight in seven innings.
Mariners manager Scott Servais said before the game that Walker wasn’t just a different pitcher from when he was on the team four years ago, but a different person. After the game, the skipper poured on more praise.
“He has a much better understanding on how to use his pitches. They’re there, they’re more go-to pitches. It’s not just hit or miss on a given night. That’s part of maturing as a pitcher,” Servais said. “He’s got a chance to put together in 10 starts and show everybody how to get himself back on the map again after being hurt for a couple years.”
But it wasn’t just the resilience of Walker — who gave up five runs in 3 1/3 innings in his season debut last week — that temporarily restored some faith among the Mariners’ faithful. It was the contributions from younger players who have been the source of fans’ curiosity since they joined the team.
There was 25-year-old shortstop J.P. Crawford, who went 2 for 4, scored two runs and upped his batting average to .393. There was 25-year-old outfielder Kyle Lewis — who is quickly emerging as the M’s’ top offensive threat — also going 2 for 4 while scoring a run, notching an RBI and boosting his average to .455.
Perhaps the chief beneficiary of Lewis’ brilliance has been third baseman Kyle Seager, who hits directly behind him in the batting order and drove him in from first with a double on Friday. And Seager made sure to give his teammate some love after the win.
“You want to talk about a hot start, that’s made my life really easy. It’s nice when there’s a guy on third every single at-bat. I hit a pop up and I get a high-five,” Seager said. “He’s been incredible.”
Normally outings like Walker’s or at-bats like Lewis’ and Seager’s would have prompted triple-decibel fervor from the crowd. That wasn’t the case Friday. There was no deafening reaction when Taylor Williams earned the save after Mariners reliever Bryan Shaw allowed three runs in the eighth inning.
But there were 8,000 cardboard cutouts in the stands and decent crowd noise being pumped in. There was walk-up music prior to each M’s at-bat along with songs between innings.
In the COVID-19 era, that’s close to the best you can do — and Servais and the players gave the game-day production crew its well-deserved acclaim after the win.
“The environment was great, the energy was up, and you could even feel some of those nerves,” Lewis said. “A lot of adrenaline.”
That game-day team gave the Mariners something to look forward to the next time they take the field. And the Mariners — however temporarily — are doing the same for their fans.