Astros help make night a good one

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comApril 9, 2013 

Seattle’s new opponents in the American League West, the Houston Astros, proved to be just the right guests for the Mariners’ home opener Monday night.

Houston’s lineup lived up to its profile as a collection of swing-and-miss hitters disinclined to coax walks, which, in turn, made veteran Mariners left-handed starter Joe Saunders resemble the competent bottom-of-the-rotation guy the team hoped it had obtained over winter.

Saunders isn’t as terrible as his work in spring training suggested – he gave up 15 earned runs and 20 hits in 112/3 innings – and it’s conceivable the four runs he surrendered to the A’s over four innings, in his desultory season debut, really was rooted in the difficulties he had gripping baseballs reputed to be slippery.

But the Astros enabled Saunders to look like a candidate to pitch a shutout whenever he takes the mound, and, of course, he’s not. He’s simply a candidate to pitch a shutout whenever he faces Houston, as is every other starting pitcher in the major leagues.

The Astros brought some offensive stats into Safeco Field that put their futility into historic proportions: 74 strikeouts through their first six games. It’s been 92 years since a big league team whiffed that much during an opening week.

But the Astros aren’t comically inept, at least they weren’t on Monday. They didn’t bump into each other on pop-ups, or throw the ball into the dugout, or forget how many outs there were. The players were in the right place at the right time, in position to do the right thing.

Franklin Gutierrez’s fifth-inning squeeze bunt, for instance, was picked up by starting pitcher Philip Humber, who underhanded the ball to catcher Jason Castro. Flawless defensive execution, but Ackley touched the plate a split-second before Castro could apply the tag.

This is why the Astros are such compatible guests. They don’t embarrass themselves or their profession – they comport themselves as major leaguers – but for a team wanting to make a favorable first impression at home, returning from a 3-4 road trip that was better than it looked, the Mariners couldn’t have hoped for an opponent better-suited for their needs.

As for the changes at Safeco Field, the new scoreboard commanded much more fan attention than the new fence. Although there weren’t a lot of highlights to be shown on the huge video screen, Gutierrez’s sprawling catch of a Ronny Cedeno line drive to right center, leading off the third inning, was as gorgeous when watched in super-slow motion, high-definition replay as it was in real time.

The reconfigured fence, on the other hand, was not a factor during the pleasant but cool night. (Get used to it. More often than not on these cool nights, there will be games when the fence doesn’t come into play.)

The hardest-hit shots of the home opener were foul balls down the right-field line, one off the bat of Kendrys Morales, the other off the bat of fellow left-handed hitter Kyle Seager.

The Mariners had three rallies worth one run apiece, built around smart base-running and contact hitting. We’ve seen enough of this kind of game at Safeco Field to understand that a fundamental truth applies:

It’s a lot more to fun to win 3-0, with the help of a few timely hits and a couple of bunts, than it is to lose 3-2 or, for that matter, 10-9.

Aside from the pregame introduction of the entire roster – it included Felix Hernandez’s demonstrative entrance on a red carpet, through a plume of smoke – the loudest sustained cheer of the night was saved for Joe Saunders.

Between Saunders’ Cactus League struggles and that rugged first start, his status in the rotation figured to be the least stable of the five starters. He’s strictly a fill-in, hired on the same one-year plan that brought veteran Kevin Millwood to Seattle in 2012.

But as he walked off the mound with one out and one on in the sixth, to the accompaniment of Argent’s “Hold Your Head High” blaring over the sound system, Saunders was feted by the festive crowd of 42,589. He had struck out five, walked only one, and trimmed his ERA from 9.00 to 3.48.

If he looks back on the home opener as the occasion his career got a jump-start, Saunders can thank the American League’s schedule makers for the confluence that brought Houston to Safeco Field for his scheduled slot in the rotation.

It is said that a double play is a pitcher’s best friend, but Joe Saunders knows better. A pitcher’s best friend is the Houston Astros.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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