By Larry LaRue The News Tribune
OAKLAND, Calif. — For most of the Seattle Mariners, their first year in a pennant race has proven a bit unnerving.
It’s not just the atmosphere in opposing stadiums, or the talent on contending teams like the Oakland Athletics who rallied in the ninth to tie, then in the 10th to beat the Mariners, 7-4 on Saturday.
What’s impressing them most?
“You see the Orioles, the Athletics, it’s like they’ve got that magic going,” the Mariners’ John Jaso said. “You can see it in their eyes. Ninth inning, down by two runs? They expect to win.”
And the Mariners. They try.
The failures overwhelmed the best moments of this game for the Mariners, and there were plenty of both in a game they led 4-0 at one point behind Jason Vargas.
Oakland kept coming.
“Those guys are feeling it over there. The fans are feeling it. You can sense the excitement in the air, and it’s great for our guys to be playing in that environment,” Seattle manager Eric Wedge said.
“You have to finish games off. We just weren’t able to do that today.”
Seattle was handed a “Little League” run in the second inning when Jaso walked — then scored from first on a ground ball to first base.
Well, Oakland first baseman Brandon Moss stepped on the bag to retire Justin Smoak, then threw wildly to second base trying to get Jaso. The ball went into the outfield and Jaso scrambled to third base and scored on a throwing error by A’s left fielder Yoenis Cespedes, whose wild throw went into the Athletics dugout.
Kyle Seager’s 19th home run in the fourth made it 2-0 and, after Smoak walked, Michael Saunders hammered his 19th homer of the year to give the Mariners a 4-0 lead.
“They don’t give up,” Saunders said of the A’s. “We battled them hard all day, and they wound up getting us.”
Oakland’s first run embarrassed Seattle. After a Cespedes single, A’s manager Bob Melvin called a hit-and-run and Moss singled cleanly into right field.
Casper Wells came in, picked up the ball and seemed confused on where he was throwing it. Cespedes gambled, testing as strong an outfield arm as the Mariners have, and raced for home.
Wells throw couldn’t catch him — and Cespedes scored from first base on a single.
“Casper’s gotta come get it. He’s gotta come get it more
aggressively and he has to get it back to the infield,” Wedge said. “That guy cannot score right there.”
He did, but after seven innings, Vargas turned a 4-1 lead over to his bullpen, needing six outs to finish his 2012 season with 15 wins.
Rookie Carter Capps got one out, allowed a single, walked Stephen Drew and was pulled for Tom Wilhelmsen, the closer asked to get the final five outs.
Wilhelmsen got a second out, then gave up a double to Moss that scored one run. A Wells-to-Dustin Ackley-to-Miguel Olivo relay caught Oakland’s Drew at the plate for the final out of the inning.
Mariners 4, Athletics 2.
Bottom of the ninth, Wilhelmsen was back on the mound, three outs from his 30th save, from the Mariners 74th victory. With one out, Wilhelmsen walked Josh Reddick.
“That changed the inning,” Wedge said.
Josh Donaldson homered to straightaway center field, and Oakland had come all the way back, tying the score at 4-4 and delighting a crowd of 21,517.
“Dude went out and got it, and that’s his job. Tip
your hat,” Wilhelmsen said.
Came the 10th, Wedge went with lefty Oliver Perez, who allowed Coco Crisp’s fourth hit of the game. Perez got one out, and was replaced by rookie Stephen Pryor.
Pryor walked Cespedes.
“That was frustrating, because I did it to myself, I didn’t throw strikes,” Pryor said. “Maybe I wasn’t quite focused enough on that first hitter.”
The second man he faced was Moss, who hit Pryor’s first pitch for his 21st home run, a three-run walk-off homer.
Seattle’s inexperience versus an Oakland team on the brink of winning a wild card berth — the Mariners lost their 85th game, saw their September record fall to 9-16.
Someone asked Saunders if his goal was to pick up his 20th home run in 2012. He shook his head.
“That’s the kind of thing I’ll reflect on in the offseason,” Saunders said. “What we have left is four games, and I want to win four games. That’s what matters to us, winning.”
The lessons of September, however, may come from watching the other team do so.