It was a telling sign that after pregame introductions, a sold-out Safeco Field crowd’s loudest cheer came in the fourth inning – when Michael Saunders just missed the right-field foul pole.
Not only was it the closest the Seattle Mariners came to hitting a home run in their home opener Friday, it was the closest they came to scoring in what became a 4-0 loss to the Oakland Athletics.
That crowd of 46,026 wanted badly to help, and Felix Hernandez bobbed and weaved through seven innings, allowing only two runs.
One-time Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon, now 38 and sporting a 5.84 earned-run average, combined with two relievers on a three-hit shutout.
Did the Mariners hitters take that shutout personally?
“You bet we do,” Kyle Seager said. “Our job is to play defense and score runs, and when we don’t score, we’re not doing the job. Colon hit spots, changed speeds a lot more than the last time we faced him.”
Opening the seventh inning, Seager hit a sinking line drive to center field. Yoenis Cespedes charged, made a dive for the ball and came up holding it in his glove.
Second base umpire Eric Cooper called Seager out.
“I saw him dive and come up with the ball, but I never saw the play,” Seager said. “It was a slider up, and he didn’t leave much up tonight.”
Replays showed the ball hit the grass just in front of the outfielder’s glove, but it was obvious only in extreme slow motion. Cooper didn’t have that luxury – which didn’t stop the crowd from booing loudly.
Still, for sheer volume, the crowd went viral in the fourth inning.
With two outs, two men on and Oakland leading, 2-0, Saunders crushed a ball deep down the line in right. It had the distance, that much was obvious. What wasn’t certain until it hooked at the end, was whether it would stay fair, perhaps bang off the foul pole for a three-run home run.
It didn’t, and Saunders subsequently struck out.
Hernandez gamely went about his business as his teammates posted zero after zero, though there were at least two versions of Felix at Safeco Field.
The man who pitched the first two innings for Seattle – striking out three hitters, getting a double play from a fourth – was the Felix Hernandez all Mariners fans love.
The guy who worked the third, fourth and fifth innings? That was the imminently mortal Hernandez, a pitcher in constant trouble.
That Hernandez gave up two runs in the third, left the bases loaded in the fourth and labored through the fifth inning as his pitch count mounted.
No, the Athletics couldn’t break him, but clearly Felix had to bend.
Some of that might well have been facing Oakland for the third consecutive start. Still, Hernandez’s velocity touched 93 mph a few times, and was more often 91 mph.
For all that, in seven innings, Felix allowed two runs, throwing 107 pitches. If it wasn’t an overpowering performance, it was certainly a game he could easily have won.
Ah, but those Mariners hitters.
A first-inning single by Dustin Ackley, a pair of singles in the fourth inning by Ichiro Suzuki and Jesus Montero.
That might be the making of a nice rally if they were strung back-to-back-to-back, but they weren’t. That was the offensive output for the night against Colon, Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour.
It didn’t help that it was the second time in the past four games Seattle had been shut out.
“Frustrated, sure,” first baseman Justin Smoak said. “I got two pitches to hit in my first at-bat and I fouled both of them off. That’s not getting it done.
“Colon had much better command tonight than in Oakland last week. He just didn’t make many mistakes, and when he did they made good plays behind him.”
Last week in Oakland, Colon lasted 4 innings, allowing 10 hits and seven runs.
In starts in Tokyo and Seattle, however, Colon is 2-0 with a 0.60 ERA – having allowed the Mariners one run in 15 innings.
The win pulled the Athletics to .500 (4-4) and past the Mariners (4-5) in the American League West. It also laid a large offensive egg in front of what could be Seattle’s biggest crowd of the season.
Sellouts are hard to come by for the Mariners after trailing all of baseball in offense in both 2010 and 2011 and promising improvement.
One game may mean little in the grand scheme of a season, but being shut out on three singles in your home opener?
It was enough to make a big crowd cheer long foul balls.