Can one swing save a season?
Although we’ll never know how deflating a sixth consecutive defeat would have been for the Mariners, it’s not difficult to imagine a team teetering against the ropes like a fighter dazed and confused in the first round.
Losing homestands are inevitable over the course of a 162-game schedule, but this was an out-of-the-gate clunker that underscored the challenge of trying to succeed at baseball with next to no offense and a shaky bullpen.
Then Dae-Ho Lee stepped to the plate Wednesday afternoon with a man on first and two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning, the Mariners and Texas Rangers tied 2-2. A right-handed pinch hitter for Adam Lind, Lee took the first fastball he saw from power reliever Jake Diekman for a strike before swinging and missing at the second fastball.
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Diekman was throwing between 95 and 97 mph, and if there’s any doubt about Lee’s ability to make the transition from South Korea and Japan to the big leagues, it’s based on the trouble he had getting his bat around on high-velocity pitches during spring training.
Lee got his bat around Wednesday, crushing a 387-foot homer over the fence in left-center field. It gave the Mariners both a 4-2 victory and the sense that some fun might be had at Safeco Field this summer.
“The makeup of our club is that we have a lot of guys who care about each other,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “They want to play good. They want to have a good year and win a lot of games. But it goes beyond that.
“We’ve got to show up every day and find a way. Today we found a way.”
They found a way thanks to a 33-year-old rookie who hit 225 home runs during his 10-year career with the Korean Baseball Organization and another 98 homers in the Japan Pacific League. Popular in both countries, where the 6-foot-4, 250-pound slugger is known as “Big Boy,” Lee already has become something of a favorite at Safeco Field.
Fans still are getting acquainted with such rebuilt-roster newcomers as left fielder Nori Aoki, center fielder Leonys Martin, catcher Chris Iannetta and first baseman Lind. When their names are pronounced by the public-address announcer, the crowd response is inaudible.
But Lee, whose walk-up music for his plate appearances is from Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song” — “Day O! Day O!” — generates a buzz that was not apparent during spring training. Between working out his visa issues, traveling to Seattle to be with his wife for the birth of their second child and adjusting to the culture of a foreign country, Lee’s Cactus League season was a truncated exercise that did not showcase his slugging potential.
He finished the spring with one home run, or two fewer than he hit during a homestand salvaged by Wednesday’s home-plate celebration.
“When he first got to spring training, there were concerns about how he’d handle velocity,” said Servais. “But the thing we kept seeing is his ability to make adjustments. He cuts down the big leg kick and he cut down the swing to make contact, and he’s plenty strong enough if that he does square it up, he’s got enough power.
“He’s played a lot of baseball — a lot of international baseball. I don’t know how he got on top of that pitch, but it says a lot for his ability.”
Lee’s shot represented the first game-ending homer by a rookie pinch hitter in Mariners history, and he joined Kendrys Morales and Ken Phelps as the only third pinch hitter to connect for a walk-off home run.
Afterward, the same Mariners clubhouse that was briefly closed Tuesday night for a players-only meeting blared with the song “Gangnam Style,” a 2012 hit in South Korea that went to the top of pop charts around the world.
“He’s settling in,” Servais said of Lee. “He’s got a big personality, along with being a big player. He likes to have fun. I think his English is better than it actually is at times — he’s fooling a lot of people.
“He’s fitting in very nicely with our club, and if he keeps hitting home runs, he’ll fit in even better.”
As for Lee’s musical tastes, “Gangnam Style” appeared to be something Big Boy tolerated Wednesday because, hey, it’s the thought that counts.
But that crowd-participation chorus of “Dae-Ho” is another matter.
Said Lee, “I love the song they play for me here.”
Get ready to hear it on a regular basis, during a baseball season he might have saved with one swing.