The Mariners on Sunday closed out their most successful homestand of the season with a 9-4 victory over the Orioles that completed a sweep and fit a design.
When general manager Jerry Dipoto was hired last October, he stressed that his No. 1 priority was to acquire athletes with skills conducive to a park where speed is more reliable than power. Eight months later, the Mariners and Safeco Field appear to be a perfect match.
It’s just not the match anybody envisioned.
For the first time since 1999, when Ken Griffey Jr. took some practice swings in the new park and watched a succession of line drives die at the hands of the evil Maureen Layer — Griffey likened Safeco Field to an outdoor refrigerator — balls are jumping, and it’s the Mariners’ bats that are making them jump.
Seth Smith’s grand slam off Ubaldo Jimenez was Seattle’s 123rd home run of the season. Of 30 major league teams, only Baltimore, with 127 homers, has more. The Orioles’ power is abetted by a hot and humid climate that has made Camden Yards a destination for free-agent sluggers — you know, the kind the Mariners have trouble acquiring unless the front office overpays.
But for reasons that remain as mysterious as the popularity of bottled water, Safeco Field suddenly has morphed into a haven for home-run hitters. The fourth-inning solo shot that former Mariners outfielder Mark Trumbo hit Sunday was home run No. 122 at The Safe. No place has been friendlier to the long ball except Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, another city associated with heat and humidity.
That Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager are on pace to hit more than 30 homers is not a surprise. The surprise is that so many of their teammates, guys like Leonys Martin, Ketel Marte and Dae-Ho Lee, are participating in the yard party. Smith’s grand slam — his 10th homer of the season — assured that seven Mariners would reach the All-Star break with at least 10 homers.
Between 1995 and the first half of ’99, Lou Piniella’s teams used to crush the ball around the Kingdome. But never did they get to the All-Star break with seven hitters showing double-digit homer totals.
Manager Scott Servais is reluctant to embrace the new identity because he knows how home runs — more specifically, thinking about the home runs — can corrupt the swing of a hitter in a groove.
“Home runs, that’s not really our game,” Servais said in his office Sunday morning. “We just want good at-bats.
“Safeco Field, I heard somebody say last night, has turned into Coors Field,” continued Servais, referring to the mile-high home of the Colorado Rockies. “I wouldn’t quite go there, but we do have guys that can hit the ball out of the park. It is fun. It is exciting. Everybody gets crazy about it, but it can turn into a negative in trying to do it. So we’re going to stay with the idea it’s not part of our game.”
Then Smith used one swing to turn a scoreless tie in the bottom of the third into a 4-0 lead. In 2010, when he played for the Rockies, Smith finished with a career-high 17 homers. But at the rate he’s hitting them these days — four consecutive games with a home run — Smith will get to 17 before Labor Day.
Reminded of his pregame remarks about home runs not being part of the Mariners’ game, Servais seemed to realize the folly of denying the undeniable.
“I don’t know what our game is,” he admitted with a laugh. “I don’t want to get caught up in home runs, that’s why I said that. I like them as much as anybody, but when you try to hit them, it’s really hard.”
A seventh-inning rally more to Servais’ liking broke open a game that the Mariners were leading 6-4. Cano started it with a one-out single off lefty reliever Ariel Miranda, followed by doubles off the bats of Cruz, Seager and Adam Lind, the latter two to the opposite field.
“Staying on the ball, Cano leads off with the hit, there’s a big double by Nellie, and Seager follows it up, against a pretty good left-hander,” said Servais. “Those are the kind of at-bats you need to see. They don’t always go out of the park, but they’re really good, quality at-bats.”
The quality at-bat, in other words, is what the manager wants, and if the ball happens to land over the fence, cool. Just don’t dwell on homers — don’t even talk about homers — because as soon as you try to hit one, you’re inviting a slump.
Home runs can bring on a power addiction capable of ruining the smoothest of swings.
But they’re sure fun to watch.