4/3/2014 9:00 P.M. ET
Smoak starts the season on a tear
By Greg Johns / MLB.com
OAKLAND -- It's early, as everyone knows. And three games are a very small sample size. But there was no mistaking the difference in Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak's confidence level and production in key situations with runners in scoring position in Seattle's season-opening three-game sweep of the Angels.
Smoak entered Thursday's series opener against the A's leading the American League with seven RBIs, a huge breakthrough for a guy who totaled just 50 RBIs in 2013 and didn't get his seventh until his 39th game on May 18.
The difference is simple. Smoak came to the plate three times with runners in scoring position and two out in the Angels series and delivered a three-run double and three-run homer.
Last year, Smoak hit .230 with runners in scoring position, not far off his overall average of .238. But with two out and runners in scoring position, Smoak hit just .194. And with the bases loaded, he was 0-for-12 with a walk, a trend he quickly reversed with a bases-loaded double in his first shot in that situation this year.
Manager Lloyd McClendon told Smoak earlier this year he wanted him to try to lead the league in doubles instead of trying to hit home runs, feeling the 27-year-old needed to focus on driving the ball to all fields and going with pitches instead of getting pull happy and trying to overpower everything.
After three games, Smoak was hitting .462 and became just the eighth player in Mariners history to start the season with three straight multihit games. His seven RBIs through three games are tied for the most in franchise history, and he's had two doubles and two home runs.
"I just see a guy who is making a conscious effort to be a good hitter," McClendon said. "One thing I told him, his record coming in with the bases loaded last year, I told him don't worry about the bases being loaded. Worry about getting the first guy in. The rest of it will take care of itself.
"If you do that as a hitter, more often than not you're going to be successful. But when you worry about trying to get the guy in from first, you end up not getting any of them in. I think he's had a nice approach."
Hart's progress apparent with first home run
OAKLAND -- Corey Hart said all spring that regaining his swing would be a work in progress after sitting out all of 2013, but the Mariners' new designated hitter was happy to finally see a little of that progression pay off with his first home run in 18 months in Wednesday's 8-2 victory over the Angels.
Hart hit just .132 in Cactus League play with no homers and one double in 38 at-bats. But the big man laced a home run down the left-field line in the ninth inning off Angels right-hander Ernesto Frieri, turning around a 95-mph fastball for his first long ball since hitting two in Sept. 29, 2012, against the Astros to finish that season with 30.
"I'm still working toward it, but I'm starting to see the ball a little easier, a little sooner," Hart said before Thursday's series opener with the A's. "I'm getting a little more confident up there, and my swings are getting a little quicker. It's not all together, but hopefully it won't take a ton more at-bats. I'm definitely feeling more confident."
Putting up a 2-for-5 night in his second game to raise his early average to .333 at DH didn't hurt. After going 1-for-4 with an infield single on a slow dribbler in his Tuesday debut, Hart welcomed a solid single in the sixth and then his home run in the ninth.
"Definitely," Hart said. "For me, if I was 0-for-20 I'd be hiding in a hole somewhere. But there are so many good vibes right now. These guys are working hard, so it kind of carries over. It's hard not to get out there and try to do what these guys are doing. It definitely helps getting off to a good start."
The two-time National League All-Star is adjusting to more than just a year off following two microfracture knee surgeries. This is the first time he's served as a primary DH, previously having spent his career in the National League. When he was with the Brewers, Prince Fielder always got called on to DH in Interleague games, so Hart is learning how to keep himself active while not playing in the field.
"It's definitely an adjustment, but I don't mind it at all," he said. "I like looking at video and taking swings in the cage, so I keep myself occupied. I don't have a hard time staying in the game. I know it's tough for some guys. It's easy to get out of the game if you're just watching.
"But I find things to do. I stay loose. I watch my at-bats. I watch some of the other guy's at-bats, I'll hit in the cage. Just keep myself ready to go."
Manager Lloyd McClendon will use Hart primarily at DH for now, though he hopes to work him in some in right field eventually if he stays healthy. But mostly, the Mariners want to get Hart's big right-handed bat in their lefty-leaning lineup.
"Corey's at-bats got progressively better, and he capped it off with a good one," McClendon said of Hart's game Tuesday. "It was really good to see. We need him to be successful if we're going to be successful."
Beimel continues making quick work
OAKLAND -- Joe Beimel had to actually throw pitches to get outs Wednesday in his second appearance with the Mariners, but the veteran left-hander didn't need a lot of them in an efficient eight-pitch inning against the Angels.
Beimel picked David Freese off at first base on Tuesday to record an out without ever throwing plateward, so the 36-year-old got his first four outs of the year on just eight tosses. He and the Mariners will take that production, which is all the more amazing for a reliever who hadn't appeared in a Major League game since 2011 due to Tommy John elbow surgery.
"That was a long time coming," Beimel said after finally getting a chance to retire batters on Wednesday. "I've been waiting for that a long time. It felt good to be back out there."
Beimel came up with the Pirates in 2001-03 with Lloyd McClendon as his manager and was a workhorse with the Dodgers from 2006-08 and Rockies in 2009-10 before his arm problems kicked in. First-year Mariners manager McClendon values the veteran presence he brings to the bullpen and liked what he saw on the mound Wednesday.
"He did a nice job, even with no pickoffs," McClendon said with a smile. "One thing with Beimel, you talk about evaluating in Spring Training. You've got to be careful. I think you saw he turned it up a little bit last night. He was down in the zone, had good sink, threw some good breaking balls. In the spring, he wasn't quite the same. Particularly with veteran players, you've got to be real careful with your evaluation. I thought he did a real nice job last night."
McClendon said even coming back off a two-year absence following Tommy John surgery, he had reason to trust the veteran.
"Check the book," he said, referring to Beimel's past history. "The book won't lie. Those numbers are going to be where they should be."
• James Paxton's first five games in the Majors haven't just been good, they've been historically good. Paxton is 4-0 with a 1.16 ERA in his short career, including his seven scoreless innings in Wednesday's season debut, making him just the second pitcher in MLB history to go 4-0 or 5-0 in his first five starts with an ERA under 1.25. The other was Boo Ferriss of the Red Sox, who went 5-0 with a 0.60 ERA in 1945.
• The Mariners opened the season with 10 or more hits in their first three games for just the second time in franchise history. They did it the first four games in 1979. It was also just the second time to score six-plus runs the first three games, one shy of their four-game streak to open the '98 season.