If only the cardboard cutouts of players’ families, fans of all ages and backgrounds, a few dogs and someone dressed as a lucha libre professional wrestler could go from fastened to the forest green seats of T-Mobile Park to their feet for a standing ovation.
Does the simulated crowd noise piped through the sound systems — which rises noticeably with good plays, quiets with bad and is a constant din — have a level for a standing ovation? Seven shutout innings of starting pitching from Taijuan Walker and yet another night of multiple hits for Kyle Lewis deserved one.
On Friday night, there were moments worthy of such celebrations from fans, real or cardboard, as the Mariners delivered their best performance of this young season — until the bullpen got its hands on the game and turned a decisive victory into a more typical 5-3 win over the Oakland A’s.
And, no, there appear to be no groans, jeers or boos from that fake crowd noise though it would’ve been acceptable after reliever Bryan Shaw took Walker’s gem of an outing and allowed three runs in the eighth inning.
Nothing about Friday night’s home opener was typical from past years. Obviously, the lack of fans, and their cardboard cutouts, were the most noticeable on television to those who haven’t been watching often this season. And players, coaches and even umpires wearing masks still haven’t become a normal sight … yet.
But inside T-Mobile Park, it all felt different.
Criticize the Mariners all you want about the on-field product over the years, and they have earned it with some stink-bomb seasons, but they know how to make the home opener a show and handle in-game production.
They tried to emulate all those past years by doing most of it virtually. Ben Gibbard, the lead singer of Death Cab for Cutie, offered a Mariners’ rendition of John Fogerty’s “Centerfield.” But there was only the programmed applause and most of the players weren’t on the field.
The annual player introductions were all met with the same level of cheering. There was no extra cheers for known veteran players — even though the Mariners only have a few — and hyped young phenoms such as Lewis.
It was 79 degrees at first pitch, which never happens at the home opener, where 59 is usually considered a good thing and 49 is usually the ending temp. But then again, the home opener doesn’t often come on the last day of July when Seattle’s weather is at its most perfect.
The only actual cheering from the stands came from starting pitchers Marco Gonzales, Kendall Graveman, Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield, who sat in the stands behind the dugout — socially distanced — and were vocal, yelling and waving towels in celebration of good plays.
The seventh-inning stretch was met with a collection of fans taking turns singing via Zoom over the JumboTron but with no one in the stadium singing along.
But manager Scott Servais and other players said the in-game environment was better than in Houston or Anaheim.
“Obviously a strange environment,” Servais said. “This was much better than our games on the road and that was a credit to the in-game production crew. They were working on this back during the intrasquad games to make it feel like a real game. I’m biased, but the last two places we were in, we blew them out of the water in terms of environment. It felt way different than being on the road. Feels like we might have a home-field advantage, we’ll see.”
Only the baseball was normal.
The last time Walker had pitched in the stadium he still mistakenly refers to as Safeco Field on occasion was on Sept. 30, 2016, also against the A’s. He allowed one run on two hits with five walks and three strikeouts. Walker returned to Seattle for the first time since being traded to the Diamondbacks on Nov. 23, 2016, as a more mature person and a better pitcher.
He delivered a stellar outing, using off-speed pitches that he didn’t have, or have enough confidence in, during his previous stint in a Mariners uniform. With a focus that was never consistently apparent in the past, he carved up Oakland over seven scoreless innings, allowing just one hit — a leadoff double to Ramon Laureano in the fourth inning — with two walks and eight strikeouts to earn his first victory since Sept. 6, 2017, as member of the Diamondbacks.
“He was ahead in the count, and I think he was behind to only six batters tonight,” Servais said. “I didn’t think he threw enough curveballs in Houston and really didn’t have a feel for it. Tonight going in, he was going to throw at least 15, maybe throw a few more than that, but it was very effective and the life on his fastball was there tonight as well.”
That wasn’t who he was during his first tenure with the Mariners, a former top pick who made his MLB debut at 21.
“I feel like I was just two-pitch pitcher last time,” he said. “Now, having that curveball that I can land for strikes and getting ahead early and then having that slider as my put-away pitch, I feel like it’s definitely a game changer for myself and you know just moving forward in my career.”
It’s a career that was sidetracked by arm issues, including Tommy John surgery, causing him to miss the past two seasons. The time spent rehabbing and working to get back and the responsibilities of fatherhood changed him.
“He’s a much different pitcher, but probably even more so he’s a much different person; he’s really matured,” Servais said. “He’s married. He’s got a family now. You just see him carry himself different, take his work a little bit differently with how serious he approaches. He’s really at the point in his career, this is an opportunity for him to kind of get back on the map. Even though it’s probably not going to be 10 starts this year, he realizes how important it is.”
The Mariners offense roughed up Oakland starter Sean Manaea, scoring three runs off him in the fourth inning, highlighted by Kyle Seager’s two-run double down the right-field line. Of Seager’s nine hits on the season, five are extra base-hits.
Lewis, who is batting ahead of Seager in the No. 3 spot, notched his sixth consecutive multi-hit game with an RBI single in the fifth inning. He has hit safely in each of the first eight games this season and has 15 total hits.
“It’s a great combination in the middle of our lineup,” Servais said. “You don’t care who’s out there pitching, righty or lefty, they’re seeing the ball great and are putting good swings on it and they’re making good swings decisions. We are going really good the middle lineup right now. Hopefully we can ride it for a long time.”