By Larry LaRue The News Tribune
SEATTLE — No one had to tell Eric Thames he’d struck out three times before walking to the plate in the ninth inning Tuesday, or that he was hitting about .200 as a Seattle Mariner in 12 games.
“Everybody knew that, including my teammates,” Thames said.
So when Thames got a soft line drive just over the Tampa Bay infield with two outs in the ninth inning, his single pushed home the winning run in Seattle’s 3-2 victory.
Improbable doesn’t cover it.
Three outs from a 2-1 loss when they got to the ninth inning, the Mariners rallied to beat Rays closer Fernando Rodney and snap Tampa’s seven-game winning streak.
Kyle Seager opened the inning with a single and manager Eric Wedge sent Chone Figgins up to bat for Casper Wells, who’d struck out three times in the game.
“Rodney’s a tough guy to get a bunt down against,” Wedge said. “Sometimes, you play for one run and get more. It worked out for us.”
Figgins dropped a sacrifice bunt fielded by first baseman Carlos Pena, who had no chance to catch Seager at second. When he hesitated, then threw wild down the line, both Mariners were safe — at second and third base — with no one out.
That got the game to Justin Smoak, the first baseman recalled from Tacoma earlier in the day and a man with a .188 big-league batting average in 2012.
Smoak had doubled and scored in the first inning, drawn a walk later in the game. Now he had the chance to do more damage.
“The whole thing is to get comfortable up there, have my swing be short to the ball, be patient with pitches,” Smoak said. “I know Rodney has a nasty changeup, so in that situation I hoped he’d put one up where I could get a fly ball.”
Rodney did, and Smoak’s sacrifice fly tied the score, to the delight of 17,065 at Safeco Field, with his 39th RBI of the year.
That took Kevin Millwood off the hook for a loss, though he’d pitched seven marvelous innings only to go out behind 2-1. But could the Mariners finish the inning and the game off?
Miguel Olivo, with an RBI double in the first inning, came up with one out — right-handed hitter vs. right-handed pitcher. Why didn’t the Mariners go to left-handed hitting catcher John Jaso?
“If I bring him in there, they walk him to set up a double play and we’ve wasted him,” Wedge said. “I want to take as many options from them as I can.”
Olivo struck out, but Figgins remained at third base for Thames, whose first few weeks with the Mariners had included 13 strikeouts and just eight hits.
“That’s what happens when you miss pitches,” Thames said. “That’s what happens when you’re always behind in the count, 0-2. Rodney threw me a first pitch fastball for a strike, and I thought, ‘OK, here come the split-fingers …’
“I looked for a pitch low and away and just tried to drive it.”
It got over second baseman Ryan Roberts, and when it landed, the Mariners had their 54th victory.
Just four of those belong to Millwood.
Rookie outfielder Trayvon Robinson’s aggressive dive for a first-inning drive down the left-field line turned a likely RBI double into a triple, and B.J. Upton scored on a subsequent one-out sacrifice fly for Tampa’s second run.
The runs were earned but the last one tainted, and they were all Millwood would allow.
“I’ve said it before, he’s the best I’ve ever seen at working out of trouble,” Wedge said.
In the eighth, the Mariners bullpen, lefty Lucas Luetge and right-handed Stephen Pryor, held the score where it was, and Pryor — hitting 99 mph on the radar readings — worked around a ninth-inning Tampa double.
Trailing after eight innings, the Mariners were 3-52 this season.
“I love these guys, how positive they are, how supportive,” Thames said. “After I struck out in the seventh inning, Wells told me I was going to be a hero in the ninth.”
And after he’d been just that?
“Jaso hit me in the face with a shaving cream pie when my mouth was open,” Thames said. “I probably still have that stuff down my throat.”
Was he upset?
“No, that was one great experience,” Thames said. “It’s been a tough year, but I’m happy to be with this team.”