By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When he returned to managing after a month-long recovery from a mild stroke, Seattle Mariners manager Eric Wedge said it was important not to allow himself to make something that was a two on a scale of 10 into an eight.
Following Monday’s listless loss to the Kansas City Royals, Wedge tried to maintain his patience with his team’s overall poor play since his return.
But keeping that frustration level at a two is getting more and more difficult with each passing game.
On a Labor Day holiday with near perfect weather at Kauffman Stadium, Wedge watched his team play anything but, losing 3-1 to a Royals’ team that hasn’t given up hope on achieving a wild cart spot in the playoffs.
What bothered Wedge most?
Was it striking out 13 times, stranding 10 runners on base, going 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position, failing to score a run with runners on first and second and no outs twice, not getting a sacrifice bunt down when asked or having No. 4 and 5 hitters — Kendrys Morales and Justin Smoak — go 0-for-8 with five strikeouts?
It was everything.
“We’ve got a lot of guys here that have to continue to learn how to play the game and understand what it takes to win a ball game,” Wedge said.
Wedge wasn’t completely excluding rookies like Brad Miller, Nick Franklin, Mike Zunino and Abraham Almonte in that. But he knows their mistakes are going to happen from sheer inexperience.
He leveled that criticism at his core of younger, but experienced players, mentioning Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders by name.
“Those guys have been around here a little bit and they need to de doing better,” he said bluntly. “I grouped them all together because they came up about the same time. Some are doing better than others, but we need to see a bit more progress out of them.”
That quartet was supposed to be the foundation of the team going forward. All four have had extended periods of outstanding play. But Wedge wants more than just long spurts.
“September is a good time to do that,” he said. “It’s all in there. We’ve seen it from all the guys. We know they can have success at this level. But to be consistent at this level and make the adjustments you need to make, not just from game to game, but at-bat to at-bat and now, with those guys, from pitch to pitch, that’s where we have to be more consistent.”
The Mariners head into the final month of the season playing out the string. Any postseason hopes died in July. But there will be no free games. Of their seven remaining series, five are against playoff contending teams.
Still, Wedge isn’t asking for much in that span.
“I want to see improvement,” he said. “I don’t mind taking a step back if it’s worth two steps forward. And that’s collectively, not just individually.”
There is an expectation of effort from the players. After all, they have proven very little on the field. Potential and possibilities won’t win games next season. Managers often invoke the oft-used idea of “grinding.” It’s what Wedge believes he should see.
“I’ve already told them that,” he said. “They need to play every game like it’s their last. That’s the attitude you have to have when you play and compete. People remember the way you finished, whether it be collectively as a ball club or individually.”
If it doesn’t improve, the Mariners, now 62-75, could be remembered as a team that lost 90 games.
With Felix Hernandez on the mound, Monday’s game should have been the most winnable of the four-game set with the Royals, even with Kansas City starting a left-hander on the mound.
But it was a lefty reliever that gave Seattle the most trouble. The Mariners chased Royals starter Danny Duffy after 32⁄3 innings and 91 pitches. They worked counts on Duffy, drew four walks and had five hits, but still only managed one run.
In the first inning, Seattle had runners on first and second with one out and failed to score as Morales and Smoak struck out to end the inning.
In the second inning, Seattle had runners on first and second with no outs, but Ackley couldn’t get a sacrifice bunt down and then flew out and the next two hitters couldn’t come up with hits.
In the third inning, Seattle had runners on first and second with no outs again, and failed to score them as Morales struck out and Smoak and Saunders both flew out to end the inning.
“The one recurring thing is not taking advantage of opportunities offensively,” Wedge lamented.
It’s why he had Ackley attempt to bunt in the second.
“It’s indicative of us against left-handers and not putting runs on the board,” Wedge said. “We were trying to get on the board early and do something.”
The Mariners finally did something with two outs in the fourth. Abraham Almonte double to left-center and Brad Miller followed with a triple to right field just out of the reach of a diving David Lough. It snapped a streak of 20 straight innings without scoring and 22 straight inning without an extra-base hit.
“I just wanted to set the tone,” Miller said. “Abe rocked one in the gap and I just wanted to come through and hopefully get things going.”
It didn’t. The Royals lifted Duffy after he walked Franklin. Manager Ned Yost brought in lefty long reliever Will Smith, who shut the Mariners down over the next 41⁄3 innings, allowing just one run and striking out eight.
“He had a pretty good slider and threw it tight,” Miller said of Smith. “He got in a good rhythm there and if you didn’t hit the one good pitch you got, he did a nice job of putting us away.”
Meanwhile, Mariners starter Felix Hernandez couldn’t hold up the minuscule 1-0 lead he was given.
The Royals tied the game in the fourth on three straight singles — none of them hit very hard. In the fifth inning, Jarrod Dyson beat out a covering Hernandez on a ground ball to first for a leadoff single. Dyson and Alcides Escobar executed a hit and run perfectly to put runners on the corners. Dyson scored on a wild pitch and Escobar later scored on a sacrifice fly from Emilio Bonifacio.
The Mariners received a small scare when Hernandez began grabbing his lower back in pain in the seventh inning. He left the game after meeting with Wedge and trainer Rob Nodine on the mound. He was later diagnosed with a muscle cramp in his back.
“It’s nothing bad,” he said. “I will be okay.”