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Smoak off to strong start as protection for Cano

ANAHEIM -- One of the big questions all spring for the Mariners was who would hit behind Robinson Cano and provide the lineup protection for the team's new free-agent prize?

It's only been two games, but first baseman Justin Smoak has provided an emphatic early answer to that query by going 4-for-8 with two doubles, a home run and six RBIs as Seattle has opened with a pair of wins over the Angels.

Cano went 2-for-4 with a double in his Opening Day debut in the Mariners' No. 3 hole and reached base three times with a single and two walks in Tuesday's 8-3 win, setting up some good situations for one of the youngsters he's taken under his wing this spring. And Smoak, who totaled just 50 RBIs despite hitting 20 home runs in 2013, appreciates the opportunity to hit behind the five-time All-Star.

The Angels intentionally walked Cano to load the bases with two outs in the third on Tuesday and Smoak followed with a three-run double.

"That's what he's going to have to do," said manager Lloyd McClendon. "He's going to be challenged, but he's swinging the bat extremely well and he's full of confidence. I like what I've seen from him."

Smoak knew what was coming and had a simple approach to the bases-loaded opportunity.

"Just go up there relaxed," he said. "It's going to happen a bunch and there's a reason why. It's just go up there relaxed and not try to do too much and just have a good at-bat."

Hitting behind Cano figures to present many such opportunities.

"No doubt," Smoak said. "With a guy like that, you know the majority of the time you're going to come up to the plate with him on base. He's going to take a walk or get his hits. It's something where you know you're going to have guys on base with him and Brad [Miller] and Abraham [Almonte]. It's just go up there with a mentality that you're going to do something good every time."

So far, so good. Last season, Smoak totaled three RBIs in his first 20 games, didn't get his first double until the 14th game of the season and his first home run until the 23rd game. He finished the month of April with one home run and five RBIs. Two days into the season, he's already eclipsed that RBI mark.

"We're getting some good hits with guys on base, and when you do that, you put runs on the board and put pressure on the other team," Smoak said. "That's what we've done the last two nights."

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.
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