The new closer configurations at Safeco Field have not stopped Joe Saunders’ success.
After struggling through four innings in his 2013 debut in Oakland, the veteran left-hander returned to a place where he felt comfortable, a place where he has never lost, and pitched like the guy the Mariners expected when they signed him during the offseason.
The not-quite-so-spacious Safeco and its closer fences had no negative effects on Saunders or his performance. He carved up American League West newcomer Houston with 6 scoreless innings in leading the Mariners to an efficient 3-0 victory in Monday’s home opener.
“Joe did great,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “I was glad to have a veteran out there in this type of setting. Your home opener is always a big one. It was nice to see him go out there and set the tone.”
Saunders allowed six hits, struck out five and walked just one batter. Only one batter made it to second base while Saunders was pitching.
“I felt good,” Saunders said. “My command was better. I was able to feel the ball a little bit better. It was just a matter of telling yourself, ‘Hey, there are a lot of fans in the stands, so you have to go out and put on a good show.’ ”
In front of 42,589 fans, Saunders improved to 7-0 in 10 career starts at Safeco with a 1.91 earned run average (13 earned runs in 61 innings pitched).
Reconfigured or not, he just likes pitching at Safeco.
“From day one, I’ve said I’m comfortable here and I like this place,” Saunders said. “There’s just something about this place I like. I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”
There really is nothing to explain. He threw strikes. He got ground balls. He benefitted from pitching against a lineup that is borderline major league. The Astros have now lost six games in a row since beating Texas in the season opener, and the third time they’ve been shut out.
Saunders didn’t need a lot of run support, but he got enough. The Mariners had five hits but made them count. Fans hoping to see a passel of homers with the moved-in fences saw the Mariners score on a single, a double and a squeeze bunt.
Seattle got on the scoreboard in the first inning as Michael Saunders led off with a single, stole second and scored on Kendrys Morales’ grounder single up the middle.
In the third inning, Saunders again singled, advanced to second on a wild pitch and scored on Morales’ double to left-center.
After opening the season 1-for-12, Morales is eight for his last 19 (.421) with three doubles, a home run and five RBI.
“I feel more comfortable,” Morales said through translator and bullpen coach Jaime Navarro. “I was just getting my groove. I’m getting it together. I’ve been working hard in the batting cages and doing the things I need to do.”
Wedge played a little small ball to get the third run in the fifth inning.
Slumping Dustin Ackley led off the inning with a much-needed single to center. Wedge tried to hit-and-run with Brendan Ryan at the plate. But Humber’s pitch was too far inside and Ryan had to make a defensive swing to protect himself from being hit and fouled the ball off.Ryan then bunted to move Ackley to second. Humber fielded the ball and tried to get the force at second but was late. Saunders followed with a deep fly out to center field that moved Ackley to third.
Wedge called for safety squeeze play, and Franklin Gutierrez put down a perfect bunt. Ackley scooted home and Humber couldn’t make a play at either home or first.
“I was looking for a good pitch, he threw the first pitch right down the middle and there’s nothing better to bunt,” Gutierrez said said. “I just wanted to get the ball down.”
While seeing Gutierrez bunt was unusual, the crowd also saw something they’ve seen a lot from him – a spectacular diving catch.
With two outs in the third inning, Gutierrez chased down a fly ball in the right center gap and made a full-extension diving catch for the third out. It would have been a sure double otherwise.
“I think that was the play of the game, it kept the momentum on our side,” Joe Saunders said. “I saw Guti running for it and I knew he had a chance and he made a spectacular catch.”
Wedge lifted Saunders after one out and a runner on first in the sixth inning.
Carter Capps and Charlie Furbush combined to pitch the seventh and eighth, while Tom Wilhelmsen picked up third save of the season pitching a scoreless firstname.lastname@example.org