The new closer configurations have not stopped Joe Saunders’ success at Safeco Field.
After pitching a less-than-stellar four innings in his 2013 debut in Oakland, the veteran left-hander returned to place he felt comfortable, a place he’s never lost and pitched like the guy the Mariners expected when they signed him offseason.
The now not-quite-so-spacious Safeco with its closer fences had no effect on Saunders or his outing. He carved up a hapless Houston Astros squad, pitching 6 1/3 scoreless innings and leading the Mariners to an efficient 3-0 win in Monday’s home opener.
“Joe did great,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “I was glad to have a veteran out there in this type of setting. Your home opener is always a big one. It was nice to see him go out there and set the tone.”
Saunders allowed six hits, struck out five and walked just one batter. Only one batter made it to second base while he was on the mound.
“I felt good,” Saunders said. “My command was better. I was able to feel the ball a little bit better. It was just a matter of telling yourself, ‘hey, there are a lot of fans in the stands, so you have to go out and put on a good show.’”
With 42,589 fans packed into Safeco, Saunders put on a good show, improving to 7-0 in 10 career starts at Safeco with a 1.91 earned run average (13 earned runs in 61 1/3 innings pitched).
Re-configured or not, he just likes pitching at Safeco.
“From day one I’ve said, I’m comfortable here and I like this place, there’s just something about this place I like,” he said. “I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”
There really is nothing to explain. He threw strikes. He got ground balls. He benefitted from pitching against a line-up that is borderline major league-level. The Astros have now lost six games in a row this season since beating Texas in the season opener. It’s the third time they were shutout in that streak.
“I know for sure we are a much better offensive club than which we’ve displayed here early on in the year,” Astros manager Bo Porter said. “We have complete confidence that these guys will hit. When it happens, we’re going to see some crooked numbers going on here.”
Saunders did need a ton of run support, but he got enough. The Mariners had five hits, but made them count. Fans hoping to see a passel of homers with the closer fences saw the Mariners score on a single, a double and a squeeze.
Seattle jumped to a quick 1-0 lead in the first inning as Michael Saunders led off the game with a single, stole second and scored on Kendrys Morales ground ball single up the middle.
In the third inning, Saunders again singled, advanced to second on a wild pitch and scored on Morales’ double to left-center.
After opening the season 1-for-12, Morales is 8 for his last 19 (.421) with three doubles, a home run and five RBI.
“I feel more comfortable,” Morales said through translator and bullpen coach Jaime Navarro. “I was just getting my groove. I’m getting it together. I’ve been working hard in the batting cages and doing the things I need to do.”
Wedge played a little small ball to get the third run in the fifth inning.
Dustin Ackley led off the inning with a much-needed single to center. Wedge tried to hit-and-run with Brendan Ryan at the plate. But Humber’s pitch was too far inside and Ryan had to make a defensive swing to protect himself from being hit, while still making contact with the ball, fouling it off to protect Ackley.
“I don’t know how the hell Ryan hit the ball on the hit and run,” Wedge said. “He did a great job of fouling that one off.”
Wedge called for Ryan to sacrifice bunt Ackley to second. The bunt was short and back to Humber, who tried to get the force out at second but was late. Saunders hit a deep fly out to center field which allowed Ackley to tag up and advance to third.
With runners on the corners, Wedge called for safety squeeze play. Franklin Gutierrez put down a perfect bunt and Ackley scooted home from third as Humber couldn’t make a play at either home or first.
“I was looking for a good pitch, he threw the first pitch right down the middle and there’s nothing better to bunt,” he said. “I just wanted to get the ball down.”
It certainly stunned the Astros. Gutierrez has been one of the Mariners better hitters in the first week of the season.
“It just played out right for us situationally,” Wedge said.
While seeing Gutierrez bunt was a surprise, there was something that wasn’t a surprise from him – a stellar diving catch.
With two outs in the third inning, Gutierrez chased down a fly ball the right center gap and made a full-extension diving catch for the third out. It would have been a sure double otherwise.
“I think that was the play of the game, it kept the momentum on our side,” Saunders said. “I saw Guti running for it and I knew he had a chance and he made a spectacular catch.”
Wedge lifted Saunders after one out and a runner on first in the sixth inning.
Carter Capps and Charlie Furbush combined to pitch the seventh and eighth, while Tom Wilhelmsen picked up third save of the season pitching a scoreless ninth.