JIM MOORE

Moore: Best part of Mariners’ series win? It gave us more to look forward to

Apr 2, 2018, 10:32 AM | Updated: 11:15 am
mariners, edwin diaz...
Closer Edwin Diaz locked down two saves in the Mariners' series win over Cleveland. (AP)
(AP)

I don’t care if the Mariners had taken two out of three from the Marlins, I still would have considered it a good season-opening series. But they took two of three from the Indians, a team that had not lost a series since the middle of August.

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I understand that the 2018 Indians might not be the 2017 Indians, but still, they have many of the same players that posted a 102-60 record and went 53-28 on the road last year. They also had a 22-game winning streak and went 15-0-3 in their last 18 series before finally losing two of the three to the Mariners over the weekend.

The Mariners also went toe-to-toe with the Indians’ three best pitchers and beat two of them. I would have thought if the Mariners were going to take the series from the Indians, James Paxton would have won his start, but he was the only loser. I thought Paxton should have started on Opening Night and was clearly wrong about that – the Mariners’ supposed new ace struggled with his command and gave up two home runs in a 6-5 loss Saturday afternoon.

But even in that game, after Yonder Alonzo gave the Indians a 4-0 lead with a grand slam in the first, the Mariners rallied against Carlos Carrasco. I figured they were done before they had their first at-bat because Carrasco’s that good, but the Mariners chipped away and made a game of it. So even their only loss was encouraging, not only to see the bats fighting back but the feeling that Paxton won’t pitch like that very often either.

We’ll see what happens from here, but honestly, I was worried they might go 0-3 and generate that “Same Old Mariners” feeling with 159 games left. I’m not ready to say they’re the playoff-bound Mariners, though they certainly, for the most part, rewarded more than 107,000 fans who showed up at Safeco Field for the three-game series.

What we saw was genuine hope, and more than a glimmer here and there. They beat one of the American League’s best teams without Mike Zunino for the entire series and Nelson Cruz for the final game. Cruz, as you’ve heard, stumbled on some dugout steps and sprained his ankle, an injury that will no doubt keep him out of the two-game series against San Francisco that starts on Tuesday.

Manager Scott Servais could have blamed the trident on the Mariners’ spring-training caps for yet another bad-luck injury; instead, he replaced Cruz with a clean-up hitter, Mitch Haniger, who smacked a two-run homer to give the Mariners a 5-2 lead, the difference in what turned out to be a 5-4 victory.

They even got a double and a run scored from David Freitas, the backup to the backup catcher, Mike Marjama. And they defeated the Indians with new first baseman Ryon Healy going 0-for-11 and Kyle Seager getting only one hit, a bad-hopper that went over Indians first baseman Alonso’s head.

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As far as concerns go, I’m more worried about Healy than Seager – the Mariners’ third baseman typically gets off to slow starts. With Healy, it might take more time for him to get into a groove since his spring training was cut short by hand surgery. Even though his numbers with Oakland last year look mostly positive, I’m skeptical because he strikes out a lot, and at least the Mariners have another first-base option in Daniel Vogelbach, the Cactus League’s top hitter.

But the negatives aren’t worth discussing now, not with the Mariners getting out of the gate the way they did. We can have debates over who was the most impactful player in the series and project what it means for the rest of the season. Haniger went 5-for-8 and 3-for-3 against 2017 Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber. When you think about how hot he was last April until a sprained oblique interrupted his Rookie of the Year candidacy and add in that he got hit in the face by a pitch later on, it’s not that far-fetched to call him an MVP candidate this season.

OK, I know, Mitch Haniger AL MVP candidate doesn’t make sense right now, but it could in September. If he’s hitting .240 in September, remind me about what I wrote and I’ll tell you that I don’t remember writing that, and I won’t be lying – at this point in my life, I can barely remember what happened yesterday. But he’s an impressive kid who anyone would take as their No. 6 hitter in a lineup, which is where he bats when Cruz is healthy. And I love his arm in right field – it might not be Ichiro in his prime, but it’s a cannon in its own right. The one Cactus League game I attended in Peoria, Haniger threw out runners at second and third.

I always get concerned about players when they hit their mid-30s, and Robinson Cano is right there at 35. Over the weekend he looked like Robbie at 25, going 6-for-10. And Cruz at 37 already has two homers, the second of which he clobbered on a pitch below his knees.

We can have a spirited debate over which player is more exciting to watch, Dee Gordon or Edwin Diaz, and neither choice is wrong. Gordon had a diving catch and a solo homer in Sunday’s game. Who didn’t love the side-by-side comparisons of Gordon with Ken Griffey Jr., two home-run swings and bat drops that looked identical, though we know that Gordon’s not technically a power hitter. Plus it was nice to see Gordon avoid another bizarre injury after he landed awkwardly following a high five with Jean Segura in the on-deck circle. It’s also interesting to note that the Mariners beat the Indians without a stolen base from Gordon, who had 60 last year in Miami.

Diaz made everyone nervous with a shaky finish to the Mariners’ 2-1 win Thursday night but was unhittable Sunday, striking out the side on three sliders that are a nice complement to his 99-mph fastballs. If Diaz continues to pitch like that, a one-run Mariners’ lead in the ninth will seem as comfortable as a 10-run Mariners’ lead in the ninth.

Normally when the Mariners go on road trips, I’m hoping they’ll break even, which means I’d take 4-4 on the upcoming eight-game trip to San Francisco, Minnesota and Kansas City. But this team appears to be different and more capable than Mariner teams from the past, and their best pitcher in the spring, Marco Gonzales, hasn’t even started a game yet.

With this team, it’s fair to shoot for 6-2 and settle for 5-3. The best thing thus far? They have us interested and intrigued about the possibilities ahead.

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