April 9, 2013 in Sports

Jury still out on closer fences’ effects

By The Spokesman-Review
 

SEATTLE – Remember when Wilson tried to move the fence in on Tim the Tool Man in “Home Improvement”?

No? That wasn’t an episode?

Could have sworn it showed up on cable the other day.

Well, that would have been the last time there was so much fuss over a wall. And before that, Berlin.

This is what happens when a baseball franchise that’s averaged 92 losses a season for five summers opens at home against the reincarnation of the 1962 Mets. Something has to serve as surrogate buzz.

So why not interior decorating?

And what an impact the moving in of the fences at Safeco Field had. Here’s how the runs were knocked in during the Seattle Mariners’ 3-0 victory Monday night over the Houston Not-Even-Trying-This-Years: single through the box, gap double, squeeze bunt.

No way that squeeze bunt works if it was still 390 feet to left-center.

The closest thing to a dinger all night was the rocket Kendrys Morales sent into the right-field bleachers for strike one in the eighth inning.

Next: the M’s angle the foul lines out.

“It’s all psychological,” said Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak, who might want to psych himself into hitting Rick Rizzs’ weight.

A week into the 2013 season, baseball is back in Seattle, greeted with a warm shrug. The smallest home-opening crowd in Safeco history – 42,589 – turned out, evidence that “True to the Blue” is a wish more than a slogan. But 80 more home dates remain to win them over, and it was hard not to like a well-pitched, well-defensed effort like this one.

(Yes, the non-sellout came on a Monday night, against a feeble foe and opposite the single greatest college basketball game in the history of Shining Moments was on the tube. Sorry. Refuse to Excuse.)

The great suck of spectators from Safeco is hardly news, or inexplicable. In a decade, the M’s have lost half their fan following, chased off not just because the ballclub hasn’t been winning – which is usually enough to get the job done – but because it hasn’t been remotely fun.

Which is to say, it can’t score.

When the Mariners haven’t been the most feeble attack in the major leagues (2010 and 2011), they’ve been in the hunt (2009 and 2012). No team in the designated hitter era scored fewer runs than the M’s of 2010 – in either league.

You can only inflate so many balloons for an every-fifth-day pity party for Felix Hernandez.

(Now the Mariners have some question marks about their pitching, too, but let’s stick to changing one bald tire at a time.)

Seattle doggedly pursued some power in offseason trades, reacquiring Mike Morse (who general manager Jack Zduriencik, with great savvy, once traded away for the redoubtable Ryan Langerhans) and landing Morales for their No. 2 starter. That these two have managed exactly one legitimate year of major league mashing each suggests there’s some fingers being crossed around here. But, hey, both have contracts that are up at the end of the year, too.

The longer-term power investment: moving in the fences.

From right-center to the left-field pole, the fence is anywhere from 4 to 17 feet closer to home plate. This is not discernible to the naked eye: the only thing that looks to be closer is the new scoreboard big screen, which is pretty much in everyone’s lap.

Nor was evidence found in the first box score.

Maybe this is why manager Eric Wedge refuses to acknowledge the makeover, other than to say, “It’s more of a fair ballpark now.”

The hitters – i.e., the ones who count – allow for a little more dialogue.

“I just don’t think,” said outfielder Jason Bay, another M’s newbie, “if people are expecting a night-and-day difference, that it’s going to turn a team that scores three runs a game into a team that scores 10.”

The math can’t be legitimately analyzed for maybe five years. So what’s left is the psychological spitballing.

“It’s going to help us as hitters take the foot off the pedal,” offered Michael Saunders, “and not have to feel like you have to muscle up and hit it 500 feet. As an offensive guy, I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t care about that.”

Morse remembers a shot from his previous Safeco tour hit off CC Sabathia as “the hardest ball I’d hit. And I remember it stayed in.” But now, as Smoak pointed out, there might be a chance of not quite getting all of a pitch and still seeing it drift over the wall.

“Then instead of 0 for 4, you’re 1 for 4 with a couple of RBIs,” Bay noted. “Then, boom, your outlook on the day and everything is completely changed.”

Sounds fun. We’ll keep our ears open for the boom.


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