Going into opening day for the Athletics and the Mariners, most people were expecting a pitching duel between Felix Hernandez (13-12, 232 K's, 2.72 ERA, Cy Young winner in 2010) and Trevor Cahilll (18-8, 118 K's, 2.97 ERA).
The first three innings didn't exactly live up to these standards. Cahill was up to 65 pitches after three and the Mariners hitting was effectively working the count on him. He looked a little shaky, throwing several pitches way out of the zone and walking in a run.
Felix looked a little more steady, even after letting up a two-run shot to one of Oakland's newest players, Josh Willingham. He retired seven in a row after the minor foible. Before the game, Felix said that if he could work through the first inning without too much trouble, he would be able to lock in to his shut-down mode for several more innings.
The biggest factor for both pitchers, however, was defense. Not to point the finger, but Kevin Kouzmanoff made several minor errors/bobbles that cost Cahill baserunners and converted to a run for the usually run-deprived Mariner offense.
The Mariners defense was much sturdier, as it should be, since fielding has always been a priority in choosing players. The guys in the infield, notably Brendan Ryan and Chone Figgins, definitely helped Felix keep his pitch count down and keep runners off the bases.
In the past, a focus on defense has been regarded as next-to-useless for a team struggling to rebuild, but it proved useful in this 2011 season opener.
In addition to wary fielding, Seattle looked very sharp at the plate—it took more than half of the pitches from Cahill. Eric Wedge must have said something in the clubhouse before the game and it payed off. Cahill ended up exiting the game after two outs in the fifth inning with 105 pitches, roughly 22 pitches per inning.
The Mariners biggest problem was stranding runners. While they did receive lots of help from Oakland's pitching and defense in the form of walks and errors, they still failed to capitalize, leaving 11 on.
It wasn't until the sixth inning that Felix received legitimate offensive support, but he appreciated it, nonetheless. Brendan Ryan ran the bases well, advancing on a sacrifice bunt from Jack Wilson and then a single from Ichiro.
Notably, during Ichiro's at bat, he tried to bunt with a runner on second. As the MLB Network commentators so eloquently put it: "He did one of those double things." They were referring to two unusual circumstances occurring on the play: 1) Ichiro doesn't often bunt because he can get on base by other means, and 2) there was only a man on second, with one out. Regardless, Ichiro hit Ryan in, only to be caught stealing on a pickoff move.
Chone Figgins homered to left on the next pitch, making Ichiro and the rest of the dugout cringe at the loss of an insurance run. Even without Ichiro, Figgins's homer set Felix up for the win, 3-2.
From there, things went downhill for the A's. Several more errors and poor decisions led to three more runs, upping the score to 6-2. Hernandez was confounded, to say the least—he had no idea what to do with a four-run lead.
But the King proved himself a quick learner, taking his lead and running with it. Felix swept through the final three innings without any trouble.
The telling factors in this one were Oakland's five errors, Seattle's zero, Oakland taking a base on balls zero times and Seattle walking seven times.
Mariners fans have reason for optimism; King Felix looked strong (CG, no walks, five K's and just 94 pitches), the defense was consistent (zero errors), and the offense was surprisingly effective (six runs?!), exhibiting both patience and power.
Maybe, after all, the Mariners will be in contention for the AL West title.