Opening day 2020 offers mixed bag for young, rebuilding Mariners

Jul 24, 2020, 10:58 PM | Updated: 11:30 pm

Mariners 2B Shed Long...

The Mariners fell to the Astros 8-2 on Opening Day in Houston. (Getty)


Opening day for the Seattle Mariners was certainly different. For the first time since 2005, Félix Hernández was not on the roster for the teams first game, and not only was the first game of the season taking place in late July, it was taking place with no fans in the stands due to COVID-19.

Early lead doesn’t hold up for Mariners in 8-2 opening day loss to Astros

But the players and coaching staffs for both the Mariners and the Houston Astros, who took the opener 8-2, made the most of it, with Mariners manager Scott Servais saying just how great it was to be back on the field in a meaningful game. His team jumped out to an early 2-1 lead thanks to home runs by Kyle Lewis and Kyle Seager, but a five-run fifth inning aided by an error and a Houston home run eventually sunk the Mariners.

For the Mariners, the game had a bit of everything that is expected to be seen from this young, rebuilding squad in 2020, as there were the highs of Lewis and Seager’s long balls as well as MLB debuts of four players, but also some heavy lows of poor defense and a shaky bullpen.

For Servais, there was plenty to take away from the game, both in positive lights as well as learning experiences for his very young club.

“It was a very unique experience for everybody not having any fans out there but it’s great to get back out there,” he said. “A number of guys out there got their major league debuts out of the way and I thought (starting pitcher Marco Gonzales) threw the ball very, very well.”

But that fifth inning was disastrous. Gonzales gave up a leadoff single then got Houston catcher Martin Maldonado to hit a ground ball in the hole between Seager at third base and Crawford at shortstop. Seager slid over and made the play, throwing to Shed Long Jr. at second base for what would have been a double play with the slow-running Maldonado running to first, but the throw was wide and Long couldn’t hold onto the ball. That put runners on the corners, and though Gonzales got another grounder to deep in the hole at short, former MVP Jose Altuve beat out J.P. Crawford’s throw for an RBI single that tied the game at 2-2 and spelled the end of Gonzales’ night.

Reliever Zac Grotz came in but struggled, giving up an RBI single to Alex Bregman followed by a three-run home run to Michael Brantley. When the inning was over, the Astros were up 6-2. Those extra outs from the should-have-been double play proved costly.

“Certainly the fifth inning got away from us a little bit and they hit some balls that we weren’t able to convert into outs there,” Servais said. “But there were a lot of positives tonight. Great to see Kyle Lewis continue to do what he’s doing and Kyle Seager got into one, but against a club like the Astros, 27 outs, no more. That’s (infield coach) Perry Hill’s motto and we gave them a few too many outs tonight.”

Lewis continues to shine

Lewis, the team’s 2016 first-round pick, started in center field and got the night going in a big way, hitting a mammoth home run off of 2019 Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander, taking a 95 mph fastball nearly 440 feet to left center field. This comes on the heels of a Summer Camp where Lewis hit four home runs in intrasquad action and more in live batting practices.

It was tough for Lewis after that, however. Verlander struck him out twice and Lewis lined out in his fourth and final at-bat in the ninth inning.

“Kyle’s seeing the ball really well and he jumped on that fastball and certainly after that, he saw Verlander make an adjustment and he didn’t make that pitch again and nothing close to it,” Servais said. “And that’s going to happen to Kyle. I think he’s going to have a big year for us. He’s seeing the ball great, he’s making adjustments.”

Lewis, who made his first opening day start hitting fourth in the lineup, was happy to get his first hit of the season, regardless of how it came.

“You always wonder when you’re going to get your first hit of the year, so to get it out of the way in my first at-bat was really cool,” he said.

After a six-pitch first inning for Verlander, Lewis took the first pitch to try to work the count. It ultimately set him up for his first home run of 2020.

“I gave him the first pitch just to see how he was going to attack and then on the second pitch I thought he wanted to get a strike with the fastball, so I just tried to be ready to hit it,” he said. “I felt like it would be a good opportunity for me to see if I can get one up in the zone I could hit hard.”

Early approach for pitchers

The plan for Gonzales was to throw between 70 and 75 pitches and get through five innings in his start, Servais said. Only one of those things happened, as Gonzales was pulled with one out in the fifth, though the aforementioned error by Seager on the potential double play played a role in that.

“I feel like I created a little bit of a mess out there so obviously the competitive side of me wants to finish off that inning and keep us close in that game, so that’s just me and who I am so pitch count or not, or limit or not, I want to go out and give us the best chance to win,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales’ final line was 4 1/3 innings, five hits, four runs (three earned), two strikeouts and one walk. He was sharp early on before the error assisted in ending his night, but he felt good overall.

“I’m really pleased with the work that I put in in Summer Camp and obviously leading up to it during the downtime,” he said. “I feel like my timing is right, the ball is coming out really well and I executed a good plan tonight to both sides of the plate, so I was very happy with that.”

After Gonzales, Servais went with Grotz, Anthony Misiewicz, Carl Edwards Jr., and Yohan Ramirez, using four of his 11 bullpen members. Grotz got two outs and gave up two runs coming in for Gonzales, while the other three relievers threw complete innings and only Ramirez threw a scoreless inning. Servais said he’d like longer outings from some relievers early on.

“We understand a lot of our starting pitching isn’t going to be stretched out, so a lot of these games having that guy in the middle that we get to our back end is going to be really important,” Servais said. “We didn’t get it done tonight but we’ll continue to give opportunities to these guys and see how it plays out.”

When Grotz came in for Gonzales, he had runners on the corners with one out. He gave up a single to Bregman and then the home run to Brantley. Servais said Grotz will still be needed going forward.

“(Grotz) has been throwing the ball well, it just didn’t happen for him tonight. And he’ll get another chance and that’s what it’s going to take,”  he said. “Everyone’s going to have to chip in. Tomorrow night we’ll have a little smaller group to pick from, but we’ll have guys and that’s why we carried 11 (bullpen guys) is so we didn’t have to tax anybody or go too hard on anybody early on in the season.”

Learning moments

The young team looked that way in the field Friday night with the big fifth-inning error as well as two other defensive mistakes.

Seager’s throwing error will get most of the attention as the Astros wound up scoring five times that inning after that, but there were two other notable mishaps on defense.

One was when left fielder José Marmolejos, making his MLB debut, lost a flyball that resulted in an RBI double when it dropped in well in front of him. Another was when Long made a nice play to his left in the hole, turned and rushed the throw, causing first baseman Evan White to pull off the bag. White tried to dive to get back and tag the bag, which he just missed. The play was ruled a hit, not a throwing error.

Servais said that game speed is something that will help the younger players make plays like that regularly.

“Shed made a heck of a play, dove, got up and didn’t realize – Michael Brantley hit it (and) that Michael Brantley is not a great runner and he had plenty of time,” he said. “So speed of the game and understanding where we’re at in the game, those are all experiences and you have to go through it at the major league level … you’ve got to make the plays when they’re out there and we will, there’s no question.”

Seattle wasn’t a great fielding team in 2019, and it’s unclear how much better they will fare in 2020, but Servais is counting on improvement.

“Our defense, we have a much better defensive team than we had last year and it will show up throughout the entire season. It’s just one of those nights,” he said.

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