Want to know who has hit the most home runs in the major leagues since 2009?
Not Giancarlo Stanton, not Bryce Harper nor Mike Trout.
He launched the first pitch he saw of the 2018 season for a Cruz missile, a towering shot over the center field wall for a two-run home run – coming on a middle-of-the-plate cutter against the Cleveland Indians’ two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, no less.
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“The adrenaline is going, you know,” Cruz said. “So you’re not really expecting much. You just want to perform. I guess you dream of that every day, trying to hit the homer on the first pitch in the first at-bat.”
That’s his 302nd home run since 2009, more than any other player in MLB in that span. He hit 39 last season and has 324 for his career.
“I thought it was going to be an out,” Cruz said. “But I guess it went out.”
It also gave the Mariners a two-run lead they wouldn’t relinquish in a 2-1 victory on Thursday’s Opening Day at Safeco Field, in front of 47,149 in attendance – the largest crowd in regular-season history at the Sodo stadium.
“I mean, it felt like playoff atmosphere,” said Cruz, who has played in two World Series with the Rangers and went to the ALCS with the Orioles.
Except the Mariners haven’t been to the playoffs in 16 seasons — not since 17 years ago in 2001. That’s the longest drought in American pro sports between MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL.
But this wasn’t easy, not against Kluber and having to hold off the Indians, the reigning American League Central champions, after they scored a run in the top of the seventh on a broken-bat RBI single.
That looked like one of the few mistakes Dee Gordon has made in his conversion to center field from Gold Glove second baseman. Gordon, the Mariners’ biggest offseason acquisition, took a step back initially on the play before the blooper landed in between he and shortstop Jean Segura.
That was all the damage, though, with 24-year-old Edwin Diaz closing out a charged top of the ninth inning with back-to-back strikeouts of Yan Gomes and Tyler Naquin, desipte Rajai Davis being at at third base and Lonnie Chisenhall at second after back-to-back hit by pitches.
So that left catcher Mike Marjama who was making his second career start, out there tring to calm down the flamethrowing 24-year-old Diaz.
Not the most ideal.
“There’s not a whole lot we can do there from the bench,” Servais said. “You kind of sit back and hopefully it will go our way. But Eddie executed pitches. That was a big thing to get out of the jam. I tip my cap.”
Diaz got Gomes with his 88-mph slider and then Naquin with a 98-mph fastball.
Kluber finished having thrown eight innings, allowing six hits, two runs with eight strikeouts.
“We were excited,” Cruz said. “I think we have a pretty good thing going on right now.”
*** OPENING DAY KING: Felix Hernandez loves himself some high-octane, charged-up crowds – especially when it’s the biggest one for a regular-season game in Safeco Field history.
Yeah, he really loves Opening Day.
“I do, that’s the kind of guy that I am,” Hernandez said. “I like to compete. I like the big stage and the highlights and stuff like that. As soon as I walked from the dugout to the mound to warm up in the bullpen, it was electric. It was awesome. I was like, ‘You got to do good, man. You got the fans behind you, supporting you. So you got to go out there and compete.”
Hernandez exited after 5 1/3 innings having allowed two hits, with two walks and no runs allowed with four strikeouts.
Mariners manager Scott Servais wanted five good innings out of Hernandez. He got that and a little more, with Hernandez leaving after 83 pitches, saying his sinker was his most effective pitch.
Hernandez has thrown 10 consecutive Opening Day starts, with only six other pitchers in MLB history having that claim (Steve Carlton, Roy Halladay, Walter Johnson, Robin Roberts, Tom Seaver and Jack Morris). All six of those pitchers are in the Hall of Fame, except for Halladay, who isn’t yet eligible.
Here’s some other Felix Opening Day start stats for you:
▪ He’s now 7-2 on Opening Day and he lowered his ERA to 1.52 (13 earned runs in 76 2/3 innings).
▪ This was Hernandez’s sixth Opening Day start allowing one run or fewer, tied for the second-most all time with Juan Marichal and Tom Seaver, trailing only Walter Johnson (eight).
▪ That 1.52 Opening Day ERA is the second-lowest in openers in MLB history with at least 70 innings pitched behind Johnson (1.31 ERA in 124 innings).
Hernandez had said he’d keep Hernandez in the 80-85 pitch range in his recovery from taking a comebacker off his right upper forearm early in spring training. It limited Hernandez to just five total innings pitched in two starts during Cactus League play.
“If we’re going to take this to the next level, we have to be able to count on him,” Cruz said.
One of the highlights – his strikeout of Bradley Zimmer to end the fifth inning. Hernandez used a quick pitch, catching Zimmer off guard with an 83-mph changeup, seeming to steal a page out of Johnny Cueto’s playbook, although normally those quick pitches are fastballs.
Hernandez laughed when asked about that afterward.
“I got a good result, so it was good,” Hernandez said. “It was in my mind three years ago but now I’m starting to do it ... don’t tell anybody.”
***HEALTHY HANIGER: Health was realy never Haniger’s question this spring training, despite missing some time with a sore hand. But he was off in his timing at the plate and Servais sent him down for some minor league games to fix that.
So how did Haniger start his season? He went 3-for-3 with a ground-rule double.
This after going 8-for-40 (.200) in 13 spring training games.
“I thougth the last game of spring training he started to find something,” Servais said. “He carried it into the ball game tonight. He was right on Kluber and Kluber is about as tough as it gets in this league.
“He made a few adjustments mechanically. You could tell his BP was a little bit different today.”
Speaking of health, Mike Zunino was originally in the Mariners’ starting lineup, but then he wasn’t when they scratchd him because of stiffness in his side, which occurred in one of his final at-bats of Wednesday’s batting practice.
So Mike Marjama played, instead, and he looked like he had injured his glove hand in the second inning when Edwin Encarnacion’s bat collided with his glove.
“I was a little scared of where we were going to go at that point,” Servais said.
Mike Zunino said he was getting himself ready to enter the game, though Servais said they would have only done that in an emergency. Utility player Andrew Romine, who played all nine positions in one game last year with the Tigers, was also apparently looking into some catcher’s gear.
But Marjama gutted it out.
“MVP of the game for me,” said Servais, a former catcher. “I know the Cruz homer was big and Eddie got the big save, but the unsung hero is Mike Marjama here tonight.”
*** ICHIRO’S RETURN: It was more pomp than production, but still … it’s Ichiro Suzuki.
He hit at the bottom of the Mariners’ order and appeared to crack a slight smile as he approached the plate for the first time in the bottom of the third inning in his return to the Mariners after six seasons playing for the Yankees and Marlins.
Ichiro finished 0-for-2 with a slow groundout and a strike out. He was replaced in the top of the eighth inning defensively for Gullermo Heredia as Ichiro recovers from a sore calf.
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677