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Larry Stone: Baseball’s cruel nature on display in loss of game, Nelson Cruz for Mariners

UPDATED: Mon., April 2, 2018, 4:20 p.m.

Seattle’s Nelson Cruz has hit two home runs in as many games this season but was injured Saturday after slipping on the dugout stairs. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
Seattle’s Nelson Cruz has hit two home runs in as many games this season but was injured Saturday after slipping on the dugout stairs. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

SEATTLE – Scott Servais was in the dugout Saturday, engrossed in the Mariners’ comeback attempt against Cleveland, when the unfathomable news was relayed to him: En route to the batting cage midgame, Nelson Cruz had slipped on the stairs, twisted his ankle, and could barely walk.

Say what?

“When I heard that, I about wanted to throw up,” Servais said. “I don’t know any other way to put it.”

I dare say that the manager was not alone in the inclination to retch, especially when Cruz’s spot in the batting order came around at a crucial juncture in the eighth inning, Seattle trailing by a run and Robinson Cano standing on second base.

Instead of Cruz, who had homered in his previous at-bat, just as he had, decisively, in the opener, Guillermo Heredia took the plate as a pinch-hitter. He popped out, the rally fizzled, and Seattle fell 6-5.

Remember the giddiness of opening day, oh, less than 48 hours earlier? The Mariners played a crisp, taut game in front of a sellout crowd, edged the Indians 2-1, and energized the fan base with notions of hope and salvation?

Well, you can stuff that euphoria where the sun don’t shine. If the opener is a civic holiday, the one day when anything is possible, then Game 2 is when the reality hits that this can be a cruel, heartless game. Baseball has an amazing capacity to humble you when the giddiness starts to creep in. And for a team like the Mariners, seemingly cursed to perpetuity, well, that goes two-fold.

The Day One buzz had already started to dwindle on Friday, when any thought that catcher Mike Zunino would make a rapid recovery from the stiffness in his side was turned away. Instead, Zunino – everyone’s pick for Seattle’s breakout star of 2018 – went on the disabled list with an oblique strain, an injury notorious for dragging out far longer than the inevitable optimistic initial prognosis.

“You never want anybody to go down or miss time, but on my radar, the No. 1 most important was him (Zunino), just because of the value he brings with the pitching staff, where he was at offensively,” Servais had said before the game.

The Mariners are clinging to the hope that Zunino will be ready when his DL stint is up in the middle of the next road trip. They’re clinging to the hope that Cruz’s MRI on Sunday will come back clean and he’ll be back in the lineup soon – never mind the fact he was in a walking boot after the game and admitted he couldn’t even walk right after the incident. And remember, Cruz was already hobbled by a quad injury.

Losing two of their top power hitters is an ominous one-two punch for a Mariners team that endured a never-ending rash of injuries last season and was hard-hit again in spring training. As Servais said in describing what he referred to as a “freak accident” by Cruz: “It’s kind of unbelievable at times, some of the things we’ve gone through here. We’ll try to stay positive, and hopefully everything is OK.”

So they’ll try to cobble through with Mike Marjama and David Freitas, two rookies with a combined 11 major league games behind the plate heading into the season, sharing the catching. And they’ll wonder how far they have to go without the intimidating presence of Cruz, who has hit 40, 44, 43 and 39 homers the past four seasons and looked locked in at the start of this one.

On top of all that, James Paxton had a rocky start to a season in which the Mariners hope he can harness his massive potential – and stay healthy. But he struggled to find any kind of rhythm and was rocked for two huge home runs, a grand slam in the first by Yonder Alonso and a two-run shot in the fourth by Yan Gomes.

“I wouldn’t read too much into it,” Servais said. “He’s healthy. He just had an off day.”

That’s not to say the game was devoid of highlights for the Mariners. If Dave Niehaus were still around to see Ichiro Suzuki’s brilliant, home-run saving catch in the third, as well as his two singles – one a patented infield job – he might have invoked his great line from a Ken Griffey Jr. home run in his Seattle return: “The old-time religion lives!”

Mitch Haniger continued his torrid start with a homer off Carlos Carrasco, the bullpen followed Paxton with 13 straight outs, and the Mariners kept pressure on the Indians. Even with Zunino out and Cruz taking an early exit, and even with Kyle Seager, Ryon Healy and Marjama a combined 0 for 20 to start the season, the Mariners have a pesky offense. As Cleveland manager Terry Francona said, “They were coming right up to the last out.”

Just in case you had forgotten, the first two games have been a poignant reminder that this is going to be a long haul, filled with soaring arias that lift your heart and discordant moments that break it. Ichiro, who has been around long enough to pass Cap Anson on the all-time hits list Saturday, moving into 21st place with 3,082, tried to put into perspective why everything changes on opening day.

“You come into the regular season and the atmosphere is so different,” he said. “It’s nothing like spring training. It’s not close.”

We wouldn’t have it any other way, right?

Right?


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