By Larry LaRue The News Tribune
SEATTLE — Eric Thames is as good an example of Seattle Mariners baseball has anyone since his arrival in July.
All-in, every at-bat. Intense, focused, wants to win.
On Sunday, with the chance to sweep the Texas Rangers out of town, the Mariners had a pair of solo home runs — one by Thames — in a 3-2 loss that was as good an example of Mariners baseball as any.
Good pitching. Steady defense when it mattered most. And, in the end, just not enough offense.
Thames, for instance, has six home runs now in 120 at-bats with Seattle — and with three strike outs Sunday, now has 45 of those. With one out and the bases full in the eighth inning, he had the chance to put his team ahead.
“A ball right down the middle just missed my bat,” he said quietly afterward. “I struck out.”
Manager Eric Wedge has seen this game before.
“We hung in there, down 3-0, and came back to make it a one-run game,” Wedge said. “But we had a couple of opportunities and got nothing from them. In the eighth inning, we’ve got to get at least one run there…
“It’s like our season series with Texas. We played them, fought them hard all season, won 9 games and lost 10. To take two of three from them in September shows how far we’ve come.”
“We’re just a little short,” he said.
The pitching was good to spectacular, with Jason Vargas working out of jams for six innings only to have the one he couldn’t dodge beat him.
In the fourth inning, Mike Napoli homered to make it 1-0.
Vargas walked David Murphy, fell behind catcher Geovany Soto, 3-1, and gave up a two-run home run and it was 3-0.
“I just got that one up in the strike zone,” Vargas said. “With Napoli, it was a change up that didn’t get down, and he got it.”
Vargas, who won his 14th game of the year on September 3, has made three starts since without a win.
When he left, Carter Capps pitched two shutout innings, topping out at 99 mph.
“I was hoping to give us the chance to come back, hoping we could pull it off,” Capps said. “With that lineup, I wasn’t try to throw it past them, I was hitting my spots. You put it down the middle, they hit it no matter how hard you throw it.”
And in the ninth inning, Shawn Kelley gave up a leadoff triple to Craig Gentry — and he and teammate Lucas Luetge got out of it with Gentry still perched on third base.
It wasn’t the Mariners pitching.
Seventh inning home runs from Thames and shortstop Brendan Ryan made it 3-2, but home runs have been the only way Seattle has scored this week.
Going back to their 18-inning loss to Baltimore on Tuesday, the Mariners are 1-for-40 with runners in scoring position. Forty at-bats with the chance to do damage — and one hit?
The Mariners had nine hits Sunday, not one with a man in scoring position.
Michael Saunders, batting leadoff, had three of them, including a two-out single in the bottom of the ninth inning. When Joe Nathan bounced a wild pitch to Franklin Gutierrez, Saunders took second base.
Gutierrez, as good an example of Mariners baseball as any, then struck out to end the game.
Now 72-81, the Mariners can look back at their just-completed homestand and envision their entire season. Great starts by Felix Hernandez and Erasmo Ramirez produced no decisions because the offense couldn’t produce more than two runs in either game.
Score in extra innings and the Mariners could have beaten Baltimore twice.
Push home a couple of ‘gimme’ runs, perhaps in that eighth inning, and the Mariners sweep Texas.
So instead of a possible 5-1 record this week, Seattle came away 2-4.
“Our pitching gives us the chance to win games,” Wedge said. “When our offense improves, that’s going to produce more wins. It may not show in the numbers, but our hitters are better now than they were a year ago, than they were in April.
“We get better at-bats, our young players are tougher, and this thing is close. We turn around some of these close games, it’s a different September.”
For now, the Mariners September is as good an example of Seattle baseball as any. They’ve played 20 games, gone 8-12 — and won five of seven games this month decided by one run.