SEATTLE – Scott Servais fidgeted in the dugout. He’d done this dance before with Edwin Diaz in the ninth inning at Safeco Field.
The tying run was on third base. The go-ahead run was standing on second and 47,149 fans – the largest crowd to ever watch a regular season game at Safeco Field – were getting antsy.
This couldn’t happen on a what had been a magical opening night in Seattle.
Diaz harnessed the fastball that had hit two batters to put those potential runs on base, striking out Tyler Naquin to end the inning and secure a 2-1 victory over the Cleveland Indians.
On a night when Indians ace Corey Kluber made about two mistakes and Mariners ace Felix Hernandez gave his all, Nelson Cruz’s first-inning two-run homer proved to be the difference.
Hernandez got the win, Diaz got the save and Servais could be seen exhaling as his players spilled out of the dugout to celebrate the first win of the 2018 season.
In his 10th straight start on opening day for the Mariners and the 11th of his career, Hernandez rose to the occasion, showcasing a new mindset on the mound – outs over domination.
Despite not having much of a spring training of any sort – making just three starts – Hernandez took the 2-0 lead provided by Cruz’s majestic two-run homer in the first inning and showed why he wanted to make the start on opening day so much.
Sure, he struck out four batters, but he was hunting for them. He pitched, accepting a ground ball or flyball out as equally as satisfying as a punchout. That mindset was even more impressive considering he was working with a brand-new catcher. His normal backstop, Mike Zunino, was scratched from the lineup during batting practice with some stiffness in his right side. So Mike Marjama, who never got to catch Hernandez in his truncated spring outings, stepped behind the plate.
With a pitch limit of around 85 to work with, Hernandez pushed his way into the sixth inning, recording one out and then walking Jason Kipnis on four pitches. At 83 pitches, manager Scott Servais took no chances in trying to extend Hernandez further. He lifted Hernandez for reliever Dan Altavilla. The muscle-bound right-hander carried over his strong spring, getting Jose Ramirez to ground into an inning-ending 3-6-3 double play.
In 11 opening day starts, Hernandez has posted a 1.53 in 76 2/3 innings pitched.
Before the game, Servais updated the status of Cruz and his sore right quad, listing ways he could protect it while running so as not to make it worse.
“We’ll see how the game plays out,” Servais said. “Once the adrenaline gets going it kind of takes over. But on the bases you can control it – when to step on the gas and when to lift off. Cruz is a pro. We trust him. He’ll be in the lineup and hopefully he hits a few over the fence and can jog around.”
Cruz needed all of one pitch to jog around the bases. With Robinson Cano on first following his two-out single, Cruz ambushed a first-pitch cutter from Kluber, smashing a towering drive to center that carried through the crisp night and just over the wall. Per MLB statcast, the ball traveled 411 feet with an exit velocity of 111 mph.
But after that blast, Kluber settled into his typical Cy Young form, allowing two hits over the next seven innings.
Seattle probably should have added another run in the fifth inning. Mitch Haniger, who had three hits off Kluber, led off the inning with a double to left. It looked like he would score easily on Marjama’s hard ground ball up the middle. But the defensive wizard that is Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor added to his highlight collection. In a full dive, he nabbed the ball out of the air, got to his feet and fired to first to get Marjama.
The Indians trimmed the Mariners’ lead to 2-1 in the seventh against right-hander Nick Vincent. A two-out double from Lonnie Chisenhall and a broken bat bloop single to left-center from Yan Gomes that seemed to confuse center fielder Dee Gordon allowed a run to score.
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