A 5-3 win over the ubiquitous A’s gives the Mariners a 6-5 start and a moment to reflect that Jesus Montero might become what Jack Zduriencik dared to dream.
What have we learned so far about the Mariners? They’re still learning.
Take, for example, Brendan Ryan. He learned halfway through his interviews Sunday afternoon as a home-run hero that Monday was a day off at home.
“Really?” he said, lighting up even more than his usual lit-up demeanor. “I didn’t know. Great. I’ll get some furniture for my condo.”
Ichiro finally is learning to hit like a No. 3 hitter, pulling a hard double down the right-field line that drove in the go-ahead run in the fifth inning. Since his four-for-five opener in Tokyo, he had been hitting .164 until two hits Sunday.
And Jesus Montero learned that just because he’s in the big leagues doesn’t mean he’ll always experience big-league umpiring. The called third strike on him in the fifth inning was terrible. He let umpire Eric Cooper know it from the dugout. Cooper, who was having a bad day all-around, warned, with finger pointed, Montero to shut up.
Who said learning wasn’t fun?
It would be easy to say that we learned the Oakland A’s aren’t very good, but Mariners fans already knew that. The rote repetition Sunday was worthwhile from a record standpoint, the 5-3 win — thanks in part to two A’s fielding miscues — giving the Mariners a 6-5 record, which includes 5-2 against the A’s, their nearly permanent playing partner.
One more game together and they would have tied Beavis and Butthead for 85th on the show-biz list of “most semi-popular tandems.” But now they part, the Mariners get a day off, followed by a mediocre team from Cleveland. Hard to imagine.
From the standpoint of a properly skeptical Mariners follower charting whether to put in with these guys, the most gratifying development so far is the progress of Montero. Despite an 0-for-4 day Sunday that ended his eight-game hitting streak, the rookie DH/catcher is hitting .286, and Saturday had his first extra-base hit, a home run to the deepest part of the national park that is Safeco Field.
Even giving lip to the umpire was a sign that he is making, at 22, the big-boy leap that GM Jack Zduriencik had hoped for when he went all in on the off-season trade that brought him from the Yankees.
He’s even caught two games, including Saturday’s splendid 4-0 win over the A’s in which his Yankees pal, Hector Noesi, who came with him in the trade, was nails through eight innings.
That’s only the second game behind the plate out of 11, but it seemed a bit of breakthrough regarding the doubts about whether he will someday develop the goods to be a solid major league catcher.
Given the chronic defensive deficiencies of starting catcher Miguel Olivo, plus his frozen bat (.111 after an o-fer Sunday), Wedge will face a season-long demand from fans and media to give Montero more time behind the plate, not just as DH.
Before the game, Wedge detailed his expectations for the position.
“I don’t give a damn what you do offensively, by far the most important thing for a catcher is running the game,” said Wedge, a former catcher. “By definition running the game is getting the most important part — getting most out of your pitcher. What you do in that moment is everything.”
That has been Olivo’s saving grace. In his 12th season and 34 in July, he knows how to work his own staff as well as opposing hitters. Wedge is willing to indulge Olivo’s passed balls and slow bat because he manages the game well.
“It’s the rhythm you keep the pitcher in — a pause here and there, then pick up the tempo,” he said. “It’s the way you come in and out of the dugout; the way you call pitches ahead in the count and behind in the count — that’s how you run a game. That’s where it all starts and ends.”
In that regard, how did Montero do Saturday?
“He did a nice job,” Wedge said. “He’s always had the passion and the understanding. He’s a good listener — we should all do that, myself first and foremost. And Jesus has the aptitude to get better.”
Given his familiarity with Noesi — they were in the Yankees system together — it seemed plain that Montero could be Noesi’s designated catcher. Although Wedge wouldn’t commit, he’s not an idiot, either.
“I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t think about it,” Wedge said.
For his part, Montero is a Labrador puppy with a tennis ball.
“It’s a new experience being a whole year with a major league baseball team,” he said before the home opener Friday. “I’m excited and happy to be here; for me, everything is a surprise. I’m still a rookie. Everything I see now is a lot different than the minors. All new to me.”
In his first game behind the plate, he caught Kevin Millwood, the crusty Marlboro Man who’s 15 years his senior. That was a case of the pitcher carrying the catcher, and it worked — Millwood gave up one run in six innings in Texas against the Rangers.
“We did a nice job together — we are on the same page,” Montero said. “I went out to him once, not about pitches, just the situation. I gave him a little time, then talked about what to do in the moment.
“He’s a veteran guy who knows what to do. He knows where he wants to throw. I catch the ball, and let him do whatever he wants.”
If Montero were to grow more quickly into the catching job, it would free up the DH spot to roll through several players, depending on the match-up of the day and the hot bat. But as long as veteran guys don’t pull their weight, Mariners offensive production is held back.
As learning abates, the doing begins. Until then, guys like Brendan Ryan must contend with learning about whether the La-Z-Boy and wagon wheel coffee table goes with the new fiancee’s Chippendale tastes. Baseball is a hard game.