When Kendrys Morales hit a three-run homer to left in the first inning Sunday, it was among the relative few Mariners dingers to have benefited from the new dimensions of Safeco Field. But the larger point was the benefit of Morales to the Mariners.
Not only did the home run end up deciding matters in a 5-1 win over the staggering Oakland A’s, it provided more evidence that the Mariners actually have fixed a position. Along with Kyle Seager at third base and Michael Saunders at whatever outfield position he wants, the Mariners with Morales have patched up designated hitter, the bleakest of offensive holes in 2012.
Mariners DHs in 2012 had a collective OPS of .597. It was not only last in the American League, it was last by about half a light year. Tampa was 13th at .685.
The magnum feebleness at DH echoed throughout the lineup: There was no one that inspired apprehension in the opponent. Pitching against the Mariners was like dropping one’s head on a good pillow: Little can go wrong.
This year, Mariners DHs entering Sunday’s games were third in the AL at .856, trailing only Boston (.968) and Cleveland (.928). Yes, it’s only 38 games (18 wins), only one position, and the Mariners still have a team batting average of .235. But they now have some players who can cause opponents some distress.
“He’s the primary reason (for the DH) uptick — that’s why we got him,” said manager Eric Wedge, who hit Morales fourth Sunday in a lineup that included in the top five two others new to Seattle in 2013 — Jason Bay hitting third and Michael Morse fifth.
In the decisive first on a cloudy, comfortable day — the Mariners averaged almost 28,000 for the series — Saunders opened with a single against A’s starter Tommy Milone. After Bay (who homered in the seventh) flew out, Seager walked and Morales brought both home. The top five guys drove in all the runs, had seven hits, an RBI sacrifice fly and two walks.
For Mariners fans too young to remember, that’s what MLB offensive productivity looks like in the top half of the lineup. To be clear, we’re not talking contention here — the Mariners still had three guys at the bottom of the order hitting below .200. But it is possible, nearing the season’s quarter pole, to see competitiveness — in the past five series following the late-April debacle against the woeful Houston Astros, the Mariners have won four and split the other.
The Mariners haven’t done a lot of big early innings, but each time they do creates a cushion for the shaky 3-4-5 starters in the rotation, of which Joe Saunders is one.
“It was awesome,” said Saunders, “when you get out to an early lead like that, it takes a little pressure off.”
Saunders probably didn’t need it, because he was pitching at home, where he is 3-0 with an o.94 ERA in four starts (9-0 and 1.72 career) after allowing one run on five hits, while striking out six and walking three.
His terrible road record (0-4, 12.54) is one of MLB’s freak stat splits of the season. Asked what he might take on the road from Sunday’s dominance, Saunders shook his head, weary of the questioning.
“Everything and anything,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. I pride myself on being a good road pitcher, but it hasn’t happened yet. Hopefully I can turn the page.
“Trust me, as much as it’s killing guys in here (the clubhouse), it’s killing me more.”
Meanwhile, Morales is dispensing hurt to others. Over his past nine games, he is hitting .324 with a six-game hitting streak. To get him in the off-season, the Mariners made an often dangerous intra-division trade with the Angels, giving up starter Jason Vargas for Morales. After a slow start, Morales is locking in.
“Morales has the impact at-bat of the game,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin, the former Mariners skipper. “He hits a decent pitch that’s down for a 3-0 lead.”
The Mariners were probably a base hit away Saturday night — a 4-3 defeat — from a three-game sweep of A’s (19-20), who have seven players on the disabled list and have lost 16 of 23 after a 12-4 start.
And the Mariners, after winning 10 of the past 15 games, are one position closer to having a credible team.