The First Seven Games

Even at 3-4, the Mariners look better than they did last year.

At about 4 p.m. on April 4, the Seattle Mariners were 1-0, boasting their first winning record in a year. That bragging right was relished for 30 hours, until the Minnesota Twins took the second (and eventually the third) game of an opening series. The M's were losers again. As of Monday, April 11, Seattle was 3-4 after winning that day in Kansas City.

Even after a weekend mess with Texas, Seattle had triple the Ws of last year at this time. While hope was as high as attendance was low at Safeco Field during the six-game 2005 opening series, many remained realistic, as in: "These guys ain't for real yet." The relatively few fans who showed up for the 7-6 loss Sunday, April 10, only seemed to get in the way. The game's most memorable plays featured would-be Ichiros fishing for souvenirs, robbing the M's of one putout and Richie Sexson of a home run.

Monday's laugher featured Ryan Franklin working eight and two-thirds innings. He threw a remarkable 64 strikes out of 83 pitches—"pretty amazing" in the estimation of the hard-luck hurler who had been sent to the bullpen until starter Bobby Madritsch got hurt. The M's had 13 hits and won 8-2.

Runs had been elusive. Midway through the Friday, April 8, game against the Rangers, Seattle hadn't scored for 21 innings—odd, since offense was supposed to be the talking point of the 2005 club. But center fielder Jeremy Reed, catcher Miguel Olivo, and Whosis Whatsisname, the new shortstop, were 0-for-'05. Then, with an out in the fifth, Olivo and Reed (the key acquisitions in last year's Freddy Garcia deal with the White Sox) decided the season might as well start. Olivo singled, Reed doubled, and the M's had three runs. It promised to be the critical inning of the season so far, but that actually wouldn't happen for another hour. During the eighth, new designated hitter Raul Ibanez sent one into the right-field bleachers for the deciding run. As for Whatsisname, he turned out to be Wilson Valdez, himself capable of a seventh-inning double as well as an error in the eighth frame reminiscent of his '04 predecessor, Rich Aurilia. The easy grounder should have started the M's fourth double play, but at least Seattle eventually won.

The next day, Saturday, April 9, with his club up 6-3, Bret Boone let a similarly simple grounder get under him with one out and none on in the ninth: Rangers, 7-6, same as the next day.

It's obviously too early to make pronouncements after baseball's annual Elysian first week, when (as Alexander Pope might have said had he lived just another 261 years) dope springs eternal. That is, M's execs on opening day were answering for eight of their own being among 38 minor leaguers popped for drug-related infractions. Team prez Chuck Armstrong talked fast and tough about how the organization has a zero-tolerance drug policy. It sounds fine, but the problem isn't just about a few minor-league aspirants. It really has to do with credibility of the game in general, and I didn't envy an M's spokesperson opening day when an obnoxious scribe asked him (and I was only being facetious) whether Richie Sexson's home runs that day were steroid-aided.

So the M's have at least two credibility problems. Let's assume the big-league-roster guys have ingested nothing more performance-enhancing than their breakfast Wheaties. The other burden is to prove that management has negotiated the hairpin turn in the other direction from the 63-99 2004 season.

The early questions: Would Ichiro hit .400? More to the point: Would he hit .500? Is third baseman Adrian Beltre a good get? He hits most balls very hard but can be suckered into reaching for pitches low and away. He had his first '05 home run against the Royals. Sexson? The tree-tall first baseman seems healthy after last year's injury-shortened season, and that means 30 to 40 home runs. Pitching? Starters Gil Meche and Madritsch looked masterful their first few innings, but Meche was roughed up and Madritsch is out (maybe for months) with a non-tattoo-related shoulder problem. Aged ace Jamie Moyer looked like a primo starter opening day, but Texas hitters waited for his whiffle balls five days later and he left the game, down 3-1, in the sixth. The bullpen? It was perfect opening day and looks better than last year's, but that's like saying beige looks better than gray. Closer Eddie Guardado's high, fat ones Saturday, April 9, yielded a pair of ninth-inning Ranger two-run homers.

New field boss Mike Hargrove likes to stick with the same lineup, altering it only to sub catchers and designated hitters. This would be fine if the M's were the '75 Reds, but I'd rather have a different-every-day shortstop, and not the injured Pokey Reese. Oft-disparaged left fielder Randy Winn is, as usual, among the team's consistent hitters, but fans still want him traded, for Randy Johnson, I guess.

For now, anyway, the M's are still losers, but they're less unlovable than last year and at least there's more than Ichiro to watch this season.

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