ANAHEIM, Calif. — Corey Hart returned Tuesday to a big league lineup for the first time since Oct. 31, 2012. That’s 546 days, if you’re counting and an eternity if you’re Hart.
“When you miss a full year you start to appreciate what kind of a job we have and what we get to do,” he said. “To not have that for a year, and now come back, it’s a special day.”
Hart was the designated hitter for the second game of the Mariners’ season-opening series against the Angels. His last action came at first base in a Milwaukee uniform in 2012 before surgery on both knees forced him to miss all of last season.
“The knees haven’t been a problem,” he said. “That’s been the big thing. I was more worried about that than anything. It’s just been the regular grinding. The body is just trying to get used to doing it again.”
It didn’t go smoothly.
It was no sure thing Hart, signed in the offseason, would be ready for the start of the season after forearm and back issues (not his knees) interrupted his spring work schedule.
Club officials didn’t make the decision to put Hart, 32, on the active roster until he passed a cram course of minor league games — roughly 30 at-bats in four days — during the final week in spring camp.
“I worked through everything I needed to work through,” Hart said. “I made it. I didn’t have to start on the DL. That was a big step. Now, I just need to get the nerves out of the way. Go out there and have fun again.”
Manager Lloyd McClendon said Hart will likely draw spot duty initially as the DH against left-handed pitchers, but the long-term goal remains unchanged: The Mariners would like him to be their regular right fielder.
“I’ve got to be careful in how much I push him early,” McClendon said. “He’s OK with that. If I can get 145 to 150 games out of him this year, I’d be very happy.”
Hart agreed he is OK with that plan for now.
“I’ll get in there when he tells me to get in there,” he said. “Eventually, I’ll make it hard for him not to put me in there.”
Sitting through Monday’s season-opening hoopla, outfielder Stefen Romero said, should ease the emotional experience Tuesday of making his big league debut.
“Just the roar of the crowd,” he said, “40,000-plus people. It hits you right there. And all the theatrical stuff. The fireworks. The fire out of the rocks (beyond the outfield wall). I just wanted to soak it all in.”
A day later? Romero said he’s ready to do what he did in spring training to win a spot on the roster.
“When you have a little bit of jitters you’re a little bit hesitant,” Romero said. “But you just have to throw it out the window and go with it.
“The lights are a little brighter. I was talking to Mac (McClendon), and he said, ‘Don’t change anything you were doing in spring training, and you’ll be fine.’”
NO PLATOON, BUT
McClendon’s plan, all along, was to find playing time for everyone in the season’s first few days.
“If you don’t,” he said, “you’ve just wasted the last 25 days of spring. Guys sit for seven or eight days, that’s no good.”
That meant Hart, Romero and backup catcher John Buck started in place of Logan Morrison, Michael Saunders and Mike Zunino. The only position player who didn’t start one of the first two games was Willie Bloomquist.
But McClendon also acknowledged he wanted a more right-handed lineup (Hart and Romero over Morrison and Saunders) against Angels left-hander C.J. Wilson.
“I’m not ready to say we have a platoon-type lineup,” McClendon said. “It’s a combination of things. It gives us better balance, and it gives us a chance to get these guys in early.”
It was 17 years ago Wednesday — April 2, 1997 — that former Mariners first baseman Tino Martinez tied a club record for an opponent by hitting three home runs in one game.
Martinez did it for the New York Yankees in their 16-2 victory at the Kingdome. All three came against Scott Sanders.
It has been done 12 times in the Mariners’ 38-year history. The list includes current Mariners infield coach Chris Woodward, who did it on Aug. 7, 2002, while playing for Toronto.
The Mariners and Angels conclude their three-game series at 7:05 p.m. Wednesday at Angel Stadium. Scheduled starting pitchers: Left-hander James Paxton (3-0, 1.50 ERA in 2013) will face L.A. left-hander Hector Santiago (4-9, 3.56 in 2013 for the White Sox). The game will be shown on Root Sports.firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @TNT_Mariners