SEATTLE — Michael Saunders’ awe-struck description of the Mariners’ new high-definition video screen had a vaguely Seinfeldian ring to it: “It’s huge, and it’s beautiful.”
The Seattle hitters have a slightly different, but no less euphoric, reaction to the new dimensions at Safeco Field. Something along the lines of: It’s no longer huge, and it’s beautiful.
Throughout the Mariners’ home opener, a 3-0 victory over the hap-, hope-, punch- and nearly defenseless Astros on Monday, a sense of anticipation hung over every lofted fly ball. Would this be the one to pierce the damp air and christen the shrunken ballpark?
Alas, it was not to be, as the marine layer remained undefeated in 2013. One game down, and no home runs yet. Not on the fierce swing by Michael Morse in the first inning that produced a collective roar from the crowd, a broken bat, and a harmless fly to left. Not on the drive to center by Justin Smoak in the second that wound up in an all-too-familiar location: Hauled in at the lip of the warning track. Not the opposite-field blast by Kendrys Morales in the eighth that sailed and sailed — and died in Brandon Barnes’ glove. And not on any of the balls hit by the Astros.
“The weather hasn’t heated up to see how it’s really going to play,” noted Smoak. “I thought I hit that ball well to center field early in the game, but it is what it is. But there’s definitely a difference, and we’re all excited about it.”
Today’s lesson, one that Mariners’ officials know they will have to constantly reinforce, is not to judge the efficacy of the reconfiguration on a small sample size. In other words, be prepared for delayed gratification. It’s a version of the same message manager Eric Wedge delivered before the game when asked about Dustin Ackley’s slow start.
I feel confident in saying that Wedge’s answer speaks not only for Ackley, but the other players still mired under .200 (or .100 in Ackley’s case) eight games into the season: Smoak, Jesus Montero and Kyle Seager.
“You’re not allowed to say slow start after a week,” Wedge said. “You’re just not allowed to do it. We’ve hit some balls here early on that will eventually translate. We’ve got to give them some time to settle in. Then you’ll find out where you are. Then if there’s any adjustments you need to make, you make them.
“That’s the beauty of having a long season. That’s one of many things I love about baseball: 162 games, you’ve got to give things time to play out, because you get rewarded in time.”
The decision to adjust their fences was a fully warranted reaction by the Mariners to years of subpar offense, and the constant negative reinforcement that was messing with the heads of their hitters.
As Saunders said, “Psychologically, it’s going to help us as hitters take the foot off the pedal, and not feel like you have to muscle up and hit it 500 feet. I think it’s going to play more fair now, and as an offensive guy, I’d be lying to you if I told you I didn’t care about that.”
The Mariners fully expected pitchers to continue to have the upper hand in the cold early months of the season. They have cautioned that it may take all year to assess the impact of the ballpark changes; indeed, two or even three years for truly accurate data. And even then, they don’t believe it will turn into a hitters’ paradise that will lead to nightly slugfests. The pitchers should still be in charge.
That said, they also firmly believe that the benefits for the Mariner hitters will be tangible. But they also showed on Monday that old-fashioned virtues like strong pitching (6-1/3 scoreless innings from Joe Saunders), great defense (diving catch by Franklin Gutierrez, slick backhand play by Brendan Ryan, deft scoop by Justin Smoak) and timely hitting (two RBI hits by Kendrys Morales) still rules the day.
In fact, it was some old-fashioned small ball that most pumped up the crowd — a perfectly executed squeeze bunt by Gutierrez in the fifth. Frankly, I don’t think that play works last year with the old fences.
Joe Saunders thrived by being oblivious to the potential pitfalls facing pitchers this year at Safeco, continuing his ongoing dominance in Seattle (7-0, 1.91 earned-run average in 10 career starts).
“I didn’t pay any attention to it, honestly,” he said of the fences. “As a pitcher, you go out there and do your thing, throw your game regardless of what is new. Just go out and try to execute regardless of the fences or the sweet Jumbotron they put in. Honestly, I didn’t notice it that much.”
I have a feeling we’ll continue to have a fascination with new-look Safeco, and not just for the astonishingly vivid video screen that presents the action in a fashion that Smoak called, “Up close and personal” — right down to the nose hairs. Each ball that clears the fence will be parsed to ascertain if it would have been out last year.
To Wedge, it’s a lot of unnecessary noise. He didn’t want his hitters dwelling on the difficulty of hitting at the old Safeco, and he certainly doesn’t want them dwelling on, or drooling over, the anticipated dividends of the new Safeco.
“I’m not that curious about it, quite frankly,” Wedge said. “You still have to go out and play the game. It’s more of a fair ballpark. I think the changes you’re going to see in our ballclub this year are within the players themselves.”
And if those players develop in the manner that Wedge seems genuinely convinced they will, the benefit to the Mariners will be huge, and beautiful.