April 2011

Saunders, Moore in lineup Saturday

Manager Eric Wedge says one of the challenges of early season is getting all his guys playing time. In that vein, Michael Saunders and Adam Moore are in the lineup tonight against the A’s after sitting out the opener.

Saunders starts in center field in place of Ryan Langerhans, who went 0-for-5 with four strikeouts on Opening Night. Wedge noted Saunders has had some success against A’s starter Brett Anderson in limited action (3-for-8) and he’s been splitting time with those two throughout the spring in Franklin Gutierrez’s absence.

Moore is starting more for health reasons, since starting catcher Miguel Olivo is coming off a strained groin muscle and only has been active for about the last week. Olivo said he felt fine after last night’s game and would happily have played today, but understands it’s important to be smart about his return.

Wedge said Olivo will be back in the lineup in Sunday’s afternoon series finale and then be able to catch Monday night’s game at Texas as well.

Here’s tonight’s full lineup for the 6:07 p.m. contest:

Ichiro Suzuki RF
Chone Figgins 3B
Milton Bradley LF
Jack Cust DH
Justin Smoak 1B
Brendan Ryan SS
Jack Wilson 2B
Michael Saunders CF
Adam Moore C
Jason Vargas LHP

The King holds court on Opening Night in Oakland

Felix Hernandez lets out a little emotion after escaping an eighth-inning jam. (Getty Images/Jed Jacobsohn)

Just when you wondered what Felix Hernandez would need to do to top last year’s Cy Young season, the man rolls out an Opening Night gem that reminds us that, seriously, he really is getting better.

This wasn’t the greatest game Hernandez has ever thrown. He’s had better stuff. He’s been less-hittable. But coming straight out of the gate and throwing a nine-inning, complete-game victory?

Never been done by a Mariner. Rarely been done by anybody, matter of fact. According to the Mariners research, it was the first complete-game, nine-inning effort by an American League pitcher since Bartolo Colon in 2002. And the first complete-game win with no walks since Rich Rhoden in 1988.

That’s some fine twirling, without question. The only previous Mariner to pitch a complete game on Opening Day was Mark Langston, who went eight innings in a 3-2 loss to Oakland in ’89.

The longest prior Opening Day start by any Mariners pitchers was 8 1/3 innings by Mike Moore in 1984 and Erik Hanson in ’91.

So those are the fun facts. And the bottom line is that Felix Hernandez was special on Friday night, special enough to overcome a shaky early start and 38 pitches through two innings and get the A’s to go quietly for the rest of the night and allow him to finish his work with 108 pitches and enough left in the tank that manager Eric Wedge didn’t even get anybody up in the bullpen.

That is one way to overcome concerns about a shaky relief staff. There’ll be plenty of time for those worries ahead. For now, enjoy the greatness of Felix and the fact that on every fifth day, the Mariners trot out a guy who is as good as anybody in the American League.

Milton Bradley, Mr. Stability: Who knew?

Milton Bradley is one of just two Mariners starting in the same defensive position today as in last year's Opening Day lineup for the Mariners. (Photo by Greg Johns/MLB.com)

Today’s Opening Day lineup for the Mariners already was announced yesterday by Eric Wedge, but it’s interesting comparing the starting nine with last year’s group.

Only four of the same batters are back in the lineup again and just two — the ever-dependable Ichiro and, yes, Milton Bradley — are in the same defensive positions.

To fully grasp the transition underway with the Mariners, go back one more year to 2009 and all nine Opening Day position players are different than today’s lineup, though that’s slightly misleading because Ichiro was on the disabled list to start that season with a stomach ulcer.

On the flip side, Franklin Gutierrez did start on Opening Day in ’09, and is only missing today because of his own stomach issues.

The one true constant has been Felix Hernandez, who’ll be making his third straight Opening Day start today and fourth overall. But just for fun, check out the Opening Day lineups from the previous two years compared with today.

2011 Opening Day lineup
Ichiro Suzuki RF
Chone Figgins 3B
Milton Bradley LF
Jack Cust DH
Justin Smoak 1B
Miguel Olivo C
Ryan Langerhans CF
Brendan Ryan SS
Jack Wilson 2B
Felix Hernandez P

2010 Opening Day lineup
Ichiro Suzuki RF
Chone Figgins 2B
Casey Kotchman 1B
Milton Bradley LF
Ken Griffey Jr. DH
Jose Lopez 3B
Franklin Gutierrez CF
Rob Johnson C
Jack Wilson SS
Felix Hernandez P

2009 Opening Day lineup
Endy Chavez LF
Franklin Gutierrez CF
Mike Sweeney DH
Adrian Beltre 3B
Ken Griffey Jr. RF
Jose Lopez 2B
Russell Branyan 1B
Kenji Johjima C
Yuniesky Betancourt SS
Felix Hernandez P

In Cust we trust? New DH gets familiar place to start

Designated hitter Jack Cust is one of 15 Mariners who weren't on the Opening Day roster last year. But he's in a familiar place, starting the season in Oakland tonight. (Photo by Greg Johns/MLB.com)

Something to watch for in tonight’s opener: Jack Cust likes hitting in Oakland. And he’d love to put a charge into a couple balls against his former teammates.

Cust wasn’t happy about the way he got handled last year by the A’s, who sent him to the Minor Leagues for the first month of the season. When he had the chance to become a free agent, he jumped at the opportunity to sign with Seattle.

Cust wasn’t throwing any darts when I talked to him yesterday on the eve of the opener, other than saying you always want to beat your former team and you hope your new squad does better than the one you just left. And yeah, he’s got a lot of buddies still over on the A’s side, so pride is on the line.

But down deep, you know there’s a little extra in this one for the Mariners new designated hitter. And perhaps more importantly, he’s always liked hitting in Oakland-Alameda County Stadium and his numbers there are pretty good, as outlined in this story I wrote last night.

What else to watch tonight when the Mariners and A’s get rolling at 7:07 p.m.? I’m interested to see if Chone Figgins gets off to a nice start. He was scorching at the plate the last two weeks of spring and seems in a much better place now, much more of the upbeat, aggressive guy the Mariners thought they were getting a year ago.

If he and Ichiro work in tandem at the top of the order as originally expected, it will definitely help this team score runs if the middle of the order can come through at all. And that might be the biggest question mark on this club — along with a rather uncertain bullpen.

Milton Bradley, Cust and Justin Smoak in the 3-4-5 holes have to produce better than what the Mariners got last year out of their left field, DH and first base slots. The potential certainly is there, but clearly there are questions as well with Bradley’s volatility and Smoak’s inexperience.

There are lots of uncertainties on this team, as you’d expect coming off a 101-loss season. Personally, I expect a solid step forward this year. Not a spectacular step, but a solid one with better offensive production up and down the lineup. If Erik “Wildcard” Bedard comes through, the starting rotation is much better than anticipated. If Michael Pineda lives up to his potential, it suddenly becomes very good.

The bullpen seems a little alarming at the moment, but you never know how those things come together. So we’ll see. And we’ll see right out of the gate with the first six games on the road against AL West foes Oakland and Texas.

Every season brings surprises and I have a feeling this one will have more than its share. This Opening Day roster is a starting point, but Jack Zduriencik and Eric Wedge will use this year as a proving ground for a lot of players. Only 10 of the 25 players on the current roster were with the team on Opening Day a year ago, so change is definitely underway.

Step one begins tonight. It’ll be a long journey, but an interesting one I’m sure as the Mariners begin laying their foundation for the future.