In 'October all over again,' France's HR wins opener

March 31st, 2023

SEATTLE -- It had been 166 long days since baseball was played at T-Mobile Park, but the progression of Thursday’s Opening Day felt eerily familiar to the most recent contest within these walls.

One epic pitching performance after the other. Endless loud outs when contact was made. Roar after deafening roar from a sellout crowd. And scoreless for what felt like an eternity. But unlike that 18-inning marathon last postseason, the Mariners finally broke through in a 3-0 victory over the Guardians, giving a jolt to the start of Seattle’s most anticipated season in decades.

crushed a three-run homer off James Karinchak with one out in the eighth inning, finally rewarding the ticketed 45,268 on hand, many of whom were likely here last October.

Did commentary from that tense finish to the American League Division Series against Houston creep up in the dugout?

“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “I’m like, ‘Oh my god, we’re going through this again.’ We left the season last year on such an empty feeling. You're just one hit away or whatnot [in the ALDS]. We've got a lot of games to play. It's one game, 161 to go. But it's a great way to start.”

Before France’s 358-foot homer hooked the right-field foul pole, the Mariners had been scoreless for 30 innings, dating back to Game 2 of the ALDS.

On Thursday, they may have been impacted by a chilly marine layer typical for this time of year. France also had a double off the top of the center-field wall, and Julio Rodríguez ripped two top-spin line drives into right-center that might have cleared the fence in July. The brisk air likely contributed to Seattle's going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position before France's homer. The club also went 0-for-8 in those situations in that fateful game last fall.

“I think we were in control the whole game,” said France, whose hustle double generated laughs for his wheels, or lack thereof. “Also, I don't think we got frustrated.”

The crowd was just as engaged as it was last October, too. Its defining moment came just before France’s blast, following a pitch timer violation by Karinchak as he faced J.P. Crawford.

Karinchak, known for his long-winded between-pitches routine, then sailed his next offering to the backstop, after which fans began counting down the timer on every pitch. When it became clear that Karinchak was getting rattled, Guardians pitching coach Carl Willis came out for a mound visit just before France stepped in.

“He was a little bit out of whack,” Servais said of Karinchak. “But a credit to our crowd. They got loud. They made it hard for him to focus and concentrate, and that's truly the impact home-field advantage can make, you know, in our game.”

France’s heroics backed six shutout innings from Luis Castillo, who overcame a scary moment when taking a 95.8 mph comebacker off the back of his head in the third, just behind his ear. He gathered himself, indicating immediately that he was OK, and remained in the game after a consultation with the athletic trainers.

“La Piedra” went on to strike out each of his next three batters and retire his final 12, surrendering only one hit. He topped out at 98.4 mph, mostly relying on his two fastballs and changeup, with the slider -- arguably his best pitch -- taking a back seat. 

For an ace who had a quiet Spring Training but has managed to step up in big games, it was textbook. 

“More than adrenaline, I think it was more of the shock or the scare that I got, because the ball is coming right at me,” Castillo said of his shutdown performance after the comebacker. “But I was able to compose myself, get those three strikeouts and have a good game.”

Yet even with Castillo's brilliance and France’s big breakthrough, he didn’t have the highlight of the night. That belonged to Matt Brash, who induced a cork-screwing, ankle-buckling swinging strikeout to José Ramírez in the seventh that ignited the social media spheres for its spin, even outside Seattle.

Put it all together, and it had the elements of a promising team responding to its stinging finish last season with a resounding jumpstart to 2023.

“Honestly, it feels like we never left,” France said. “This place, it's just, you really can't say enough about these fans. The amount of love that they show us and just how loud they are every single game, it felt like October all over again.”