Mariners blank Astros in home opener, 3-0

SEATTLE — In an up-and-down opening week, Kendrys Morales has come to typify what the Mariners hope the rest of their offense winds up being.

Morales couldn’t buy a hit as the Mariners wound through the first portion of their season-opening trip. But his past few games, including Monday night’s 3-0 win over the Houston Astros in the home opener at Safeco Field, Morales has provided all the Mariners hoped to see from their No. 3 hitter.

With two more hits, giving him five in two days and eight the past four games, Morales led a more-balanced attack from the top, middle and bottom of the batting order. And just as Morales has taken off, the Mariners hope the rest of an offense that’s sputtered at times will soon kick things into gear.

“I felt better tonight,” Morales said, with bullpen coach Jaime Navarro serving as his interpreter. “I felt more comfortable. I’m just getting into my groove. I’m just trying to get it together. I’ve been working hard in the batting cages doing the things I need to do and I’m just getting those things done for now.”

Morales had a first-inning single and third-inning double to drive home leadoff hitter Michael Saunders both times and get the fired-up crowd of 42,589 — just shy of an official sellout — into the game early. That gave Morales a home run, two doubles and two singles since Sunday, a welcomed improvement from his 1-for-12 beginning last week.

Franklin Gutierrez closed out the scoring in the fifth with a safety squeeze bunt to score No. 8 hitter Dustin Ackley from third base. Gutierrez earlier had made a fully-extended diving catch in right-center field to rob former teammate Ronny Cedeno of extra bases.

Those contributions provided M’s starter Joe Saunders the support needed to notch his first win. Saunders wasn’t flawless, but made the pitches needed over 6-1/3 innings to improve to 7-0 with a 1.91 earned-run average in 10 career starts at this ballpark.

The more all-around offensive attack also helped the Mariners prevail despite only five hits against an Astros club that has lost six in a row. But considering the mound opponent was Philip Humber — who last pitched here for the White Sox a year ago and threw a perfect game — any offensive steps rate as an improvement.

It also got the job done more than the home-run-or-nothing approach taken in Chicago over the weekend, when the Mariners notched all six of their runs via the long ball in consecutive defeats. Despite some moved-in fences at the ballpark and a new giant video board to show replays of big hits, neither team managed to go deep.

“Everybody was just doing their part and doing the things they needed to do,” Morales said of Monday’s win. “It’s going to take time. But things are going to get better.”

It’s taken Gutierrez time to get better after missing most of the past two seasons with injuries and a nagging stomach ailment. But he looked his vintage self at the plate and in the field, pushing his bunt perfectly up the first-base line on the first pitch Humber threw to him.

“I was looking for a good pitch to bunt and put the ball down,” Gutierrez said. “It was very important for us. We need to score as many runs as we can and it doesn’t matter how we do it.”

Ackley had led off with a single to center after starting the season 1 for 21. He broke for home when Gutierrez squared up and scored rather easily ahead of the toss home by charging first baseman Carlos Pena.

A couple of innings earlier, on the catch of Cedeno’s drive, Gutierrez showed why he was once considered the game’s top center fielder before all his health issues.

“As soon as I went to get the ball, I had confidence in myself that I could get to it,” he said. “I took my chances. I just dived and I’m glad that I caught the ball.”

So was Saunders, who had been roughed up by Oakland in his first start. Saunders gave up hits in five of the seven innings in which he worked, but the Astros never managed the big one that could have put them back in the game.

“As soon as he hit it, I’m like ‘Uh-oh!’ but then I saw Guti running for it and I’m like ‘Ooh, he’s got a chance’,” Saunders said. “And he made a spectacular catch, so hats off to him.”

The Astros — dubbed the “Lastros” by their detractors — entered with a .199 team batting average and 74 strikeouts their first six contests. Saunders added four more whiffs before leaving with one on and one out in the seventh, while Carter Capps and Charlie Furbush fanned the side in the eighth.

Tom Wilhelmsen closed out a 1-2-3 ninth, giving the Mariners their first win in a home opener since 2009.

Mariners manager Eric Wedge said his team looked more varied on offense than over the weekend.

“That’s good to see,” Wedge said. “Again, as I’ve said so many times, once these guys settle in, I think they’ll be doing it from top to bottom. In different fashion, but that’s a good way. We don’t want to be just a one-dimensional club and I don’t believe that we will be.”