It was just four days ago the Mariners had lost their second series to the lowly Houston Astros — a team with a $20 million payroll and a collection of players whose names even the most diehard of baseball fans would not recognize. Fans were incensed. Talk of possible firings was permeating. General discontent reigned.
On Sunday, thanks to a pair of late-inning solo home runs by Jason Bay and Michael Morse and the outstanding pitching of Hisashi Iwakuma, the Mariners rallied for a 2-1 victory over the Los Angeles Angels at Safeco Field. The victory secured Seattle’s first series win of the season. After a forgettable stretch of baseball, the Mariners returned home and took three of four games against a team with a $128 million payroll, featuring a cavalcade of baseball’s biggest names that is supposed to win the American League West and possibly contend for a World Series title.
Baseball can be a very strange game.
“A comeback to win to clinch the series — that’s the type of thing that can get you going,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “These guys, I like the way they are carrying themselves right now. They are starting to get back on track.”
If the Mariners (11-16) are getting back on track, the Angels can’t even see the track. They fell to 9-15 on the season and are fourth in the AL West standings, behind the third-place Mariners.
“It’s way too early to look at that,” Morse said. “You can look at that, but we won’t.”
After the awful road trip to Texas — where the Mariners lost five of six games — Wedge was happy to see his team show signs of playing better in general, particularly at Safeco Field.
“Obviously we still have a ways to go offensively,” Wedge said. “But you can see certain indicators with certain guys that they are starting to head in the right direction. Eventually that will collectively translate and then we’ll be on our way.”
The Mariners didn’t need too much offense with Iwakuma on the mound.
The right-hander produced another stellar pitching performance. Iwakuma pitched six innings, allowing just one unearned run on three hits with no walks and eight strikeouts.
“Iwakuma was outstanding again,” Wedge said. “He did a great job pitching against a very good lineup.”
More importantly, Iwakuma’s nagging blister issue on the middle finger of his right hand seems to be improving.
“I think we are heading in the right direction,” Wedge said. “If we would have pushed him one more inning I think we put him right back to where we’ve been with it. He came out better today than he has.”
With an off day on Thursday, Wedge will push Iwakuma back a couple days in the rotation to give the blister more time to heal.
“It’s much better than the last start,” Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki. “More time off will help the finger heal, the skin will get much harder. I think it will be better down the road.”
It’s difficult to imagine Iwakuma pitching even better with a healthy finger. He’s been outstanding all season. He lowered his earned run average to 1.67 in four starts this season. Over his last two starts, he’s struck out 19 hitters in 11 innings.
He also seems to pitch very well against the Angels with an ERA of 1.03 in six appearances, five of them starts.
“I thought I pitched with a better tempo today,” Iwakuma said.
The lone Angels’ run came in the sixth inning. Iwakuma gave up a lead-off single to Andrew Romine and advanced to second on Peter Bourjos’ sacrifice bunt. Romine would score when Mike Trout’s routine ground ball was booted by shortstop Robert Andino, bouncing under his glove and into left field.
It looked as though Jason Vargas might make that one run hold up. The former Mariner left-hander, who was outstanding at Safeco Field in his time in Seattle, pitched well there again.
Vargas — who was traded to the Angels in the offseason — held the Mariners scoreless through the first six innings, allowing four hits while striking out five.
One of those strikeout victims was Bay, who looked befuddled by Vargas’ nasty changeup in his first two at-bats, striking out swinging both times.
So Bay decided the best way to beat Vargas’ changeup was not let him throw it.
Bay led off the seventh inning by swinging at the first pitch he saw from Vargas — an 86 mph fastball down the middle — which he hit over the left field fence into the Angels bullpen for a solo homer to tie the score 1-1.
“I was looking for a fastball early and attack it,” Bay said. “That’s the plan a lot of times, but right there I got one I could handle.”
The game didn’t stay tied for too long. An inning later, Morse fell behind 1-2 in the count. But Vargas made a mistake and left a fastball up. Morse jumped all over the pitch, ripping a line-drive homer into the Angels bullpen to give the Mariners a 2-1 lead.
“After the first time around the order, he started throwing that changeup and it was pretty unhittable,” Morse said. “It was tough, but we tried to get on his fastball early in the count.”
Given the 2-1 lead, Mariners closer Tom Wilhelmsen came in to shut the heart of the Angels order, retiring Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Mark Trumbo in order for his eighth save of the season. Carter Capps (2-1) picked up the win in relief.
What does the come-from-behind victory and series win mean for Seattle?
“We beat a good team three out of four games, but it’s how we play tomorrow,” Bay said. “The nature of baseball it’s hard to get momentum day to day because you play so much. In a perfect world, you’d like to think it would carry over, but that’s not just going to happen.”
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