By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
TORONTO — The terrible Texas trip seems so long ago. But in fact, it’s been just 10 days since it came to a miserable end.
Ten days since the Seattle Mariners dropped their second straight series to the lowly Houston Astros.
Ten days since manager Eric Wedge blistered the walls of the visitor’s clubhouse at Minute Maid Park in Houston following an ugly 10-3 loss in a closed door meeting.
Ten days since the talk of firings and changes began to really permeate throughout the Pacific Northwest.
And in those 10 days, the Mariners have righted themselves and started playing quality baseball that includes stellar pitching and run-scoring offense.
With Saturday’s dominant 8-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre, the Mariners have now won seven of nine games in those 10 days, while winning three straight series to inch closer to .500 with a 15-17 record.
“The guys have made steady progress,” Wedge said.
But Wedge never wavered in his belief his team wouldn’t right itself. Even at the lowest point of the season in Houston, he stubbornly maintained that this team was much better than it was showing at the time. He believed the offense would come eventually. He reiterated over and over that second baseman Dustin Ackley would hit despite an awful start. He promised the Mariners would be better.
Wedge appears to be right.
Of course, it’s a little premature to be penciling them in for the playoffs. But Mariners fans will gladly take the higher quality of baseball they’ve seen in the past 10 days.
While the Mariners seem to be rising, the Blue Jays are in a downward spiral that may cost manager John Gibbons his job. In the past two games, the Mariners have out-pitched, out-hit and generally out-played Toronto — a chic preseason World Series pick — in every facet of the game. The Blue Jays were booed intermittently through the game and showered with a chorus of boos from the crowd of 35,754 as the Mariners did their postgame victory handshakes.
Seattle’s Hisashi Iwakuma continued his marvelous start this season. The right-hander gave the Mariners yet another solid outing, pitching seven innings and giving up just one run on five hits while striking out five and walking three to improve his record to 3-1 this season.
Iwakuma lowered his earned run average to 1.61 and has allowed one run or less in five of his seven starts this year.
“He’s just been so consistent for us this season and he was again today,” Wedge said.
Iwakuma’s first inning was a little shaky despite being given a 1-0 lead thanks to Michael Saunders second lead-off home run of the season in the top of the first.
A somewhat tight strike zone from home plate Ed Hickox led to a lead-off walk. Then a pair of singles, sandwiched around a flyball out, loaded the bases for Toronto.
Iwakuma didn’t give in. He threw three straight nasty splitfinger fastballs to strike out Colby Rasmus for the second out. He needed just four pitches to strike out Rajai Davis to end the inning, striking him out with another nasty splitfinger in the dirt.
“I was as impressed as anything with that first inning,” Wedge said. “You talk about big league pitching, that’s it right there. To get out of that the way he did, especially early in the game, it helps to push your squad in the right direction early.”
Even the normally poker-faced Iwakuma showed a little emotion with a bit of yell and a small glare of accomplishment as he headed toward the dugout.
“That second strikeout was big,” Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki. “Being able to locate a splitfinger down in the zone was big. Being able to come out with a good pitch in a tough situation was awesome.”
It seemed as though a pitcher’s duel was setting in. After giving up the lead-off homer to Saunders to start the game, Blue Jays starter R.A. Dickey settled in and found command of his knuckleball, retiring 10 straight hitters at one point.
But it all fell apart with two outs in the fourth inning. Kendrys Morales, who had singled with one out, was on first when Dickey suddenly lost control of his knuckleball and walked Raul Ibanez and Kelly Shoppach to load the bases.
Ackley unloaded them with one swing. Dickey left a knuckleball over the middle of the plate on a 3-2 pitch and Ackley drove it over the wall in right-center for his first career grand slam and first homer of the season.
“I was coming off the at-bat before where I didn’t even swing the bat,” Ackley said. “I told myself I was going to be aggressive. I missed the first two I swung at. Fortunately, I think he threw me a get-it-over knuckleball with a 3-2 count and the bases loaded and trying not to walk me. And I just put a good swing on it.”
Suddenly the game went from 1-0 to 5-0. Iwakuma went into cruise control, content to let the wild swinging Jays get themselves out.
With the bothersome blister on the middle finger of his throwing hand not being an issue, Wedge sent the right-hander out for the seventh inning despite having thrown 95 pitches.
Iwakuma issued a lead-off walk to Davis, who moved to third on Henry Blanco’s double and scored on Munenori Kawasaki’s sacrifice fly. But Iwakuma retired Brett Lawrie on a fly ball to end the inning.
Iwakuma threw a season-high 108 pitches.
“It was good to stretch him out,” Wedge said.
Saunders hit his second homer of the game off Dickey in the fifth inning, Shoppach added an RBI double in the sixth inning off Dickey and Saunders doubled home another run in the ninth off reliever Brad Lincoln.
Saunders continues to hit in the Rogers Centre. The 3-for-4 day gives him four doubles, five homers and 11 RBI in his past 10 games in Toronto.
“Some places are just more comfortable than others,” Saunders said.
For Wedge, it’s more comfortable having him in the lineup. Since his return from a shoulder injury, Saunders has seven hits — with a double and three homers in five games. But it’s his intensity and presence at the top of order that makes the difference to Wedge.
“He had a big day for us,” Wedge said. “He just brings a lot of energy and intensity to the top of our lineup and to our lineup in general. He’s going to put up spirited at-bats. You are going to have to work to get him out.”