Two weeks after the largest regular-season crowd ever to watch a game in Safeco Field was bored to tears by a sleepy hollow offense, the Mariners scored 10 runs Thursday. Everybody in the starting lineup contributed to a victory that assured the team of its third winning road series in three tries.
The Mariners’ early success away from Seattle is impressive, and an at-bat or two away from eye-opening. They lost the season opener to Texas, 3-2, and dropped a Sunday afternoon game to the Yankees by the same score. The other defeat, Tuesday night at Cleveland, was 2-1.
It’s conceivable the Mariners could have owned a 9-0 road record when they take the field Friday night against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. But they’ll settle for 6-3, a pace that converts into a 54-27 record over 81 games. Only once, when it finished 59-22 in 2001, has Seattle won more than 50 times on the road.
The flip side, of course, is that it took Dae-Ho Lee’s clobbering of a chin-high, 10th-inning fastball to avoid an 0-6 homestand. What gives? Why are the Mariners playing exciting and suspenseful baseball in Texas and New York and Cleveland, yet looking they just got roused from a some quality couch time at home?
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“I don’t want to read too much into a six-game stretch,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said Thursday on 710 ESPN. “We’ve going to play 81 home games. It’s a long journey. If you talk to me and we’re 3-30 at home, then we’ve got a problem. But the fact it took us six tries to win one is probably too small a sample size to judge.
“We’ve done a better job on the road of finding ways to win, and I think you’ll start to see that translate when we get back home as well.”
Perhaps, but the absence of a home-field advantage for the Mariners reflects a pattern from last season, when they finished a respectable 40-41 on the road — among American League teams, only the Royals, Rangers, Yankees and Indians were better — but were undone by a 36-45 record in Seattle.
Retooling the roster for Safeco Field was a point of emphasis for Dipoto, whose winter acquisition of center fielder Leonys Martin was made with the idea of preventing runs on defense. Leadoff man Nori Aoki was acquired to help manufacture runs on offense.
Neither stood out during the season’s first six home games, but they weren’t alone. The Mariners were outscored 28-11.
“It takes time to get into your rhythm, into your routine,” Dipoto said. “Baseball is a game of routine. I played long enough that I don’t forget the need to get into that routine.
“We didn’t play as well as we wanted during that opening homestand, but you can’t panic when that happens. When you sense the panic around you, that’s when you’ve got to keep your head on straight. A 162-game journey is long. You’re going to go through ups and downs. You’re going to win five in a row, and lose five in a row.”
Strange as it sounds, developing a day-to-day routine at home might be more difficult than it is on the road for the recently relocated likes of Martin and Aoki. On the road, the itinerary is structured. The bus to the ballpark leaves at a set time and returns to a hotel where a bed is prepared with fresh linens.
On the road, a baseball player’s only concerns are about baseball. At home? If he’s new the community, there’s an apartment to find and, often, young children who require attention. These aren’t unusual stresses — many of us are familiar with the drill — but then again, many of us don’t make our living trying to put a round bat on a round ball traveling 97 mph.
In any case, the Mariners not only compete on the road, they compete with the energy of pro athletes having fun. Take Thursday, when Cleveland came back from deficits of 5-0 and 7-3. Blowing big leads like those on a get-away day almost never goes well for the visitors, but with two runners on in the top of the 10th, Robinson Cano got a pitch he was able to hit a half-mile and closer Steve Cishek quickly sealed the deal for his third save.
The Mariners starting pitching has been adequate — not lights-out dominant, but not a concern, either. The revelation is a bullpen that in spring training appeared to be the team’s most obvious vulnerability. Nobody is feared when manager Scott Servais goes to the ‘pen, but the results speak for themselves.
“I can’t say enough about what the ‘pen has done,” Dipoto gushed. “Overall, the group has been phenomenal. Every single guy down there has contributed positively, and doing it fairly regularly.
“So far, so good. Couldn’t be happier with that group. They’ve definitely earned our trust.”
Dipoto’s “so far, so good” assessment could also apply to his team, which has a reasonable chance to return to Seattle on Monday with a record above .500.
The Mariners have yet to find a comfort zone in Safeco Field. If ever they do, the summer of 2016 will be a blast.