SEATTLE — When a team is in the midst of a long winning streak, all the breaks seem to go it’s way.
But what happened in the ninth inning on Tuesday night for the Seattle Mariners to get their eight straight victory — a 4-3 win over the Cleveland Indians at Safeco Field — should be construed as something more than a break.
It was a gift — a gift wrapped in a bow from Drew Stubbs, the Indians and the baseball gods in the form of a 5-4-2-6 double play, which erased an almost certain game-tying run.
“You don’t see that too often,” said Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager.
That’s because on most levels it was a fundamentally bad baseball play from Stubbs.
The Mariners seemed destined for disaster in the top of the ninth.
Closer Tom Wilhelmsen had thrown three pitches and given up two hits. Mark Reynolds led off the inning, ripping the first pitch he saw from the Mariners’ closer into center field. Indians manager Terry Francona replaced Reynolds with a pinch runner — the speedy Stubbs.
The move paid off immediately as Stubbs easily advanced to third on Lonnie Chisenhall’s single to center. Francona went to another pinch runner, replacing Chisenhall with Mike Aviles.
With runners on the corners and no outs, it seemed a tie game was a certainty.
But what followed, left the Mariners smiling and shaking their heads in wonder and Francona and the Indians making a similar motion, only in pure disgust.
Yan Gomes hit a soft ground ball to Seager at third. He coolly looked at Stubbs to freeze him from going home, and then fired to Nick Franklin at second base for the force out.
Stubbs read the play as the Mariners trying to turn a double play, and he started making a non-committal move toward home. He was just kind of hanging out in the baseline — too far from home to score and not close enough to third to get back.
“I was kind of surprised to see him there,” Franklin said. “I was going to turn the double play, but I saw him out of the corner my eye.”
Franklin came off the bag and made a motion at Stubbs, who knew he was in the land of hesitation without a map, a compass or a direction. He started to break for the plate. Franklin immediately fired home to catcher Mike Zunino.
“I was just like, ‘give the ball up, and not try to make a bang, bang play, and we’ll get him in the rundown,’” Franklin said.
The thinking worked. Zunino got the ball well before Stubbs was near home. Stubbs, knowing he was a sure out, then retreated to third in hopes of staying in a rundown. Zunino got rid of the ball to Brad Miller, who was waiting at third. Miller quickly chased Stubbs down for the double play.
“It’s a play you’ve got to run through scenarios in your head and make your mind up and go with it,” Stubbs said. “Any slight hesitation is going to cost you like it did.”
Francona was diplomatic about the play.
“He just probably needed to keep going and we’ll take our chances,” Francona said.
To make matters worse for Cleveland, Gomes, who was still upset at himself for the weak ground ball, had no idea of what was going on with Stubbs, and didn’t advance to second during the rundown.
Acting manager Robby Thompson, who was filling in for hospitalized manager Eric Wedge for the second straight night, hadn’t seen a sequence like that in his lengthy baseball career.
“Not many, especially with a guy like Stubbs, who can really run,” he said. “The way our young guys executed that, it was really impressive.
Given a completely new set of circumstances, Wilhelmsen struck out Michael Bourn looking to pick up his 23rd save of the season.
“That was the difference in the ball game,” Wilhelmsen said. “We are starting to take advantage of the breaks.”
Of course, the Mariners were on the other end of those breaks against the Indians in Cleveland. They lost four straight games, including three walk-off losses with equally odd circumstances.
“Things like that happened for Cleveland in Cleveland,” Thompson said. “And they seem to be going our way now. Sometimes things just kind of snowball and go your way. And they are going our way right now.”
Really it shouldn’t have been that close at the end. The Indians played a sloppy game, committing three errors and could have been charged with more. But the Mariners didn’t really take full advantage.
Cleveland took a quick 3-1 lead in the second inning as Gomes crushed a two-run homer off of Mariners starter Erasmo Ramirez into the left-field upper deck.
But Seattle answered in the bottom of the third. Back-to-back doubles from Raul Ibanez and Kendrys Morales off Indians starter Zach McAllister cut the lead to 3-2. McAllister later uncorked a wild pitch to let Seager score from third to tie the score at 3-3. Zunino provided the go-ahead hit for the second straight night, lacing a single to right to score Michael Saunders.
“He was using his fastball a lot,” Zunino said. “And you have to hunt that even with two strikes. I was able to get one away and put a good swing on it.”
The 4-3 lead would last.
Ramirez wasn’t sharp. He needed double plays in the fifth and sixth to get out of trouble. He exited with two outs in the sixth.
“He was better,” Thompson said of Ramirez. “I think he got a little tired towards the end there and his arm slot was dropping down a little bit.”
Yoervis Medina ended the sixth inning with ease and pitched two more scoreless innings of relief.
The Mariners will go for their ninth straight win today. It would tie the longest streak since 2003.
“That’s what winning is about is taking advantage of those opportunities,” Wilhelmsen said. “We are starting to do that more often than not as of late.”