By Danny O’Neil
Hector Santiago was down on one knee as the crowd at Safeco Field got to its feet, a pair of equal – and opposite – reactions to the Mariners’ most meaningful hit in four years.
It’s possible that is an overstatement. Maybe Corey Hart’s three-run home run in the bottom of the third inning won’t mean anything in the long run of a 162-game season. Maybe the potential loss of starting pitcher James Paxton will turn out to be more significant than this game the Mariners won 5-3 over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Tuesday night.
But maybe – just maybe – Hart’s home run will become part of the bedrock that Seattle will build upon this season. With two out and two men aboard in the third inning, Hart provided a 400-foot correction to anyone who believed the home opener was going to turn out disappointingly familiar.
Same old Mariners? Not so far this season. Certainly not on this night as the Mariners took a game that looked disappointingly familiar and turned it into a signature moment.
Felix Hernandez’s perfect game is the single most celebratory moment this franchise has had since its last winning season in 2009, and while Hart’s home run didn’t prompt that kind of celebration, it certainly sent a jolt of electricity through the sold-out crowd, keying a victory that was as important as it was odd.
Yes, odd because not only did Seattle lose its starting pitcher to an injury in the sixth inning, but the Mariners scored four runs in the third inning after Brad Miller struck out for what would have been the final out of the inning. Except Miller wasn’t out, reaching first after the ball got away from Angels catcher Chris Iannetta. Robinson Cano walked and Seattle scored its first run on Justin Smoak’s RBI single.
Hart came up next, falling behind 0-2 before fouling off two pitches and then clobbering a homer to left field. It was a moment that elicited a roar from the stadium, and erased that sinking feeling Seattle felt earlier when Paxton allowed two first-inning home runs before he recorded his second out.
Not quite the start Seattle wanted as it returned home after a 4-2 road trip, carrying that momentum into a pregame ceremony that included Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, quarterback Russell Wilson and half a dozen other players from the Super Bowl champions. They walked in from the outfield fence, the final act in a pregame introduction that included a red carpet, the U.S. Navy band and a Lombardi Trophy.
Yet the Mariners weren’t even two-thirds of the way through the first inning when they trailed 3-0, and that sigh you heard was the air coming out of Seattle’s fast start.
What happened next was noteworthy not just for what it meant in Tuesday’s home opener, but what it could mean for this season
It’s early. That is a word that urges caution in baseball, and it is a refrain that has been hung onto every conclusion drawn through the first seven games of this Mariners’ season.
But it wasn’t what happened early that determined the outcome of the Mariners’ home opener, but what Seattle did later. Paxton allowed almost as many runs in the first inning (three) as he had allowed over his first five major-league starts (four).
The Angels recorded three runs before the Mariners recorded two outs, and just like that a week’s worth of momentum and an evening of feel-good celebration was threatening to evaporate until Hart’s home run provided the kind of exclamation point the Mariners have spent years searching for.