SEATTLE – Considering the hype and attention that comes with a home opener, Seattle manager Eric Wedge wanted a veteran to take the mound for the Mariners.
Joe Saunders’ career mark at Safeco Field certainly made him feel better, too.
Kendrys Morales drove in two runs in his Seattle home debut, Saunders rebounded from a rough first start to throw 61/3 shutout innings, and the Mariners debuted the new-look of Safeco Field with a 3-0 win over the Houston Astros on Monday.
“Your home opener is always a big one and nice to see him go out there and set the tone and pitch, and I’ve been really encouraged by his strength the first couple of outings,” Wedge said. “His secondary stuff was obviously better tonight. Just did a great job.”
Monday night brought an opportunity for the first look at Seattle’s redesigned field dimensions and its new giant video screen.
After being one of the most unfriendly parks for hitters, the Mariners made changes to the outfield in an effort to make the park fair to both hitters and pitchers.
The fences were brought in between 4 and 17 feet depending on the area of the outfield, and how the park would play was the subject of plenty of pregame questions.
It’s still a question after the new dimensions were barely threatened by either team.
Saunders (1-1) was a big reason why.
He allowed six hits and struck out five. Saunders improved to 7-0 all time at Safeco Field and dropped his ERA at the ballpark to 1.91 in 10 career starts.
It was an important and impressive rebound following a spring where he struggled and a first start in Oakland when Saunders had trouble gripping pitches and lasted just four innings.
“I thought my command was better. I was able to feel the ball a little bit better,” Saunders said. “It was just a matter of telling yourself, ‘Hey, we’ve got a lot of fans in the stands tonight, go out and put on a decent show and treat them to a win.’”
It helped that Saunders was facing the Astros, who struck out 74 times in the first six games. Houston struck out eight times on Monday night, and only once got a runner to third base.
Brandon Barnes reached third following Ronny Cedeno’s two-out single in the fifth, but Saunders got Jose Altuve to ground into a force out to end the inning.
Saunders got help earlier in the game when Franklin Gutierrez made a diving catch in right-center field to rob Cedeno of at least a double leading off the third inning.
“As soon as he hit the ball I just went to go get it and the only chance that I have was to dive,” Gutierrez said.
Carter Capps took over for Saunders and recorded four outs, using an improving slider to go with his fastball. Charlie Furbush got the final out of the eighth and Tom Wilhelmsen pitched a perfect ninth for his third save.
The offense came from Morales, who has multiple hits in three of the past four games. Morales snapped Seattle’s 0-for-14 drought with runners in scoring position by chopping an RBI single in the first and added a two-out RBI double in the third, both off Houston starter Philip Humber (0-2). Michael Saunders scored each time.
Through an interpreter, Morales said he’s trying to find an early groove after struggling in the season-opening series at Oakland.
“He’s a very professional hitter, a smart hitter,” Wedge said.
Humber was trying to match the perfect game he threw against the Mariners last season while with the Chicago White Sox.
Any thought of equaling that feat was gone after just one batter when Saunders led off with an opposite-field single. He then stole second on the next pitch and scored when Morales chopped his single over the glove of Cedeno to give Seattle an early lead.
Morales came through again in the third inning after Saunders reached on a bloop single that fell on the left-field foul line. Gutierrez struck out for the second out of the inning, but Morales lined Humber’s pitch into the gap for his third double of the season.
Seattle added another run in the fifth when Wedge guessed correctly and Gutierrez dropped a perfect squeeze bunt to score Dustin Ackley.
“I think I probably could have kept it to maybe a one-run game. Saunders getting to second both times he scored was on me,” Humber said.
“Hopefully I do a better job holding runners next time.”
Seattle had lost its last three home openers.