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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

April 7, 2009 at 11:02 AM

One down….

The most exciting Opening Day I ever witnessed occured in 1986, the first one I covered as a real, live baseball writer (for the Bellevue Journal-American).

The Mariners, coming off an 88-loss season, played the Angels the Kingdome, Mike Moore on the mound. They trailed 4-2 heading into the bottom of the ninth, only to have Jim Presley tie it up with a two-run homer. Bedlam in the Kingdome, but panic in the press box, where I tried desperately to figure out how I was going to re-write my game story, which was focused on what looked to be a tough Mariners’ loss, with deadline rapidly approaching. And then, when Presley won it in the 10th with a grand slam — deadline had already passed, and the story needed to be filed immediately — I believe I just started weeping. The moment was too big for me to cope with.

Those Mariners, at that instant, were on top of the world, and talking confidently of the new attitude pervading the clubhouse after so many disappointing years. Well, by the end of April, they were deeply imbedded in last place and getting league-wide recognition — for being the free-swingingest team anyone had seen in a long time. That point was driven home when Roger Clemens struck out 20 Mariners on April 29. On May 8, manager Chuck Cottier was fired, and the M’s went on to another dismal season, 67-95.

The point of that memory is not to douse the excitement of Monday night, which simply could not have gone any better for the Mariners. Well, maybe that’s a little of the point. Capt. Party Pooper here remembers last year’s 5-2 win over Texas on Opening Day and seems to recall the rest of the season didn’t go so well.

Still, Mariner fans should savor the victory, and be filled with high hopes, because that’s what this time of year is about.

I was particularly impressed with Felix Hernandez, who looks poised for the breakout year we all know he has within him. And speaking of poise, that’s what impressed me the most. Whenever the Twins threatened, he remained completely in control of himself, and of the game. That’s a tremendous sign of maturity, and bodes well.

My only concern, in fact, is with the right ankle Hernandez twisted in the first inning. I happened to be at Shea Stadium covering the June 23 game last year in which Felix hit a grand slam off Johan Santana, and then twisted his left ankle while covering home on a wild pitch. Carlos Beltran, the baserunner, slid hard into him, and manager Jim Riggleman wound up taking Felix out of the game. In the clubhouse afterwards, however, no one thought the injury was particularly serious.

“I’m going to pitch next time. For sure,” Hernandez said.

Riggleman termed the sprain “mild,” and added: “We hope we can get him back out there as soon as possible. (Trainer) Rick Griffin is pretty encouraged. He may miss a couple of days off his next start, but we’re not thinking DL at all.”

As you probably remember, Felix did wind up on the DL, and didn’t pitch again until July 11 — 18 days later.

One big difference, of course, is that Hernandez stayed in the game this time and pitched seven more brilliant innings. But I’m a little alarmed by his post-game quotes about how much pain he was in throughout the game. I’ll be very interested to see how he feels today. Let’s hope he doesn’t have any after-effects from the injury.

Finally, I must gloat a bit about my prediction in yesterday’s live chat. I was asked to forecast the opener. At 11:59 a.m. (more than five hours before the first pitch), I responded:

“It won’t be rained out! That’s my prediction. How’s this: I think Felix will pitch a gem (eight innings, five hits, two runs, both earned, two walks, eight strikeouts), Griffey will hit a homer, and the Mariners will win 3-2, with Morrow getting the save.”

Hernandez’s actual line was eighth innings, five hits, one run, earned, three walks and six strikeouts. Not too shabby. I nailed Griffey’s homer, and Morrow was warming up for the save until the Mariners added two runs in the ninth.

Just call me Nostra-stone-as.

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