As shaky as their starting rotation has been recently, the Seattle Mariners tried something new in the first inning Monday night, running out a true opener for the first time this season. Whether or not that plan worked depends on perspective.
Since April 27, Seattle’s starters had compiled a dreadful 6.78 ERA, which was the worst in the American League entering the day. And, in recent weeks, the innings the Mariners have squeezed out of their starters have been frustratingly few.
The idea with the opener was for the Mariners to give the opposing team, in this case the Houston Astros in their series opener at T-Mobile Park, a different look at the beginning of the game. Maybe this would keep their opponent off-balance, and allow the Mariners to get their regular starters deeper into games, manage pitch counts, and avoid some first-inning slip-ups.
Wade LeBlanc, who entered the game in the second inning, did match a career-high, working eight complete innings on an efficient 89 pitches. He allowed a season-low one earned run on three hits, struck out two and walked one. Looking at it that way, using an opener was effective, and something the Mariners should consider trying again.
But, for an opener to truly benefit a club that has descended to a 25-38 record so quickly the past seven weeks, he can’t give up three decisive runs in the first inning. And, that’s what happened against Houston, leading directly to a 4-2 loss.
“I would consider doing it again, no question,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “It has a little bit of a different feel to the ballgame, but as far as it working, certainly you want to throw a zero up there in the first inning. That didn’t happen, but we got a lot of our follower tonight. I’ll take that every time out.”
Reliever Cory Gearrin got the opener nod, making the first start of his professional career, which started in 2007. Despite becoming one of Seattle’s more consistent bullpen arms the past month, Gearrin dug the Mariners an early hole in his one-inning outing.
“It’s a different process as far as getting ready for the game,” Gearrin said. “But, once you get out there, you just have to go pitch. Wade pitched unbelievable today, he deserved to win that game. It’s tough on me seeing that. As a bullpen guy you want your guys to get wins when they pitch unbelievable like that.”
After quickly recording the first out, walked Alex Bregman, then allowed a triple to Josh Reddick, which got behind center fielder Mallex Smith, the next at-bat. Yuli Gurriel plated Reddick with a grounder to short, and Robinson Chirinos cracked a solo homer to left to make it 3-0.
Gearrin made some quality pitches, working ahead 0-2 on both Bregman and Reddick, but couldn’t put either away. He recorded the loss, but said whether he opens the first inning or pitches in the ninth, he has to figure out how to make the necessary changes.
“Going forward this is kind of a part of the game,” Gearrin said. “You’re seeing it more and more. So as a pitcher, you have to figure out how to go out and get ready and adjust on the fly like that.”
LeBlanc retired the Astros in order in six of the eight innings he pitched, including retiring seven straight batters to finish the game.
But, Houston tacked on one more run in the sixth on another costly miscue by the Mariners’ defense. Bregman knocked a one-out double to left center, and advanced to third on Reddick’s single the next at-bat. With runners at the corners, Gurriel hit a slower-rolling grounder to short.
Knowing he didn’t have time to turn the double play to end the inning, shortstop Dylan Moore rapidly turned and fired home, but there was no one there to catch the ball. Catcher Omar Narvaez prematurely left the plate to back up the possible double-play attempt.
“He vacated home plate too soon, obviously,” Servais said. “Strange play. I’ve actually had that play happen to me as a catcher, believe it or not, same exact play, and I learned a lesson. I think Omar did tonight, too.
“The ball is hit, and the first thing you’re thinking is it’s a double play, and Dylan actually made the right read. He wasn’t going to be able to turn a double play on that. He made a very athletic throw to the plate, and Omar just vacated too early. You’ve got to make sure he’s committed to going to second before you (leave) the plate to go back it up. Crazy play, you don’t see it very often.”
Bregman scored to push Houston’s lead to 4-2, and the Mariners never got closer. No error was charged on the fielder’s choice — though the Mariners continue to lead the majors with 69 — allowing the one run to go down as earned against LeBlanc, but the near-complete game he tossed was his most productive of the season.
“After we put up three runs on their opener, LeBlanc came in and was able to get some soft contact,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “They gave us a run in one of the weirdest plays you’ll see with first and third, but we just didn’t put a ton together against him. I know our guys, we’ve been hot and cold with him. There’s been nights where he’s been really good against us, there’s been nights where we’ve ambushed him. Tonight was more of the former.”
Smith (three homers) and Edwin Encarnacion (team-high 16) each launched solo home runs in the third for Seattle’s only runs, at that point cutting the lead to 3-2. The Mariners put just two runners in scoring position during the final six frames, and couldn’t plate either of them.
“We had some chances, stole some bases, and were aggressive with that tonight,” Servais said. “Guys got some good jumps, but just not enough up and down the lineup tonight.”