ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — When the Seattle Mariners play imperfect defense, strike out 17 times and go 2-for-7 with runners in scoring position, what happened Saturday night rarely does.
Michael Saunders delivered a two-run first-inning single, then Jason Vargas and four relievers held the Tampa Bay Rays without an earned run to hold on to a 2-1 victory.
“After playing 14 innings last night, I knew the bullpen was stretched thin,” said Vargas, who won his 10th game of the season. “What was frustrating for me was I kept going to 3-2 counts on everybody. I wanted to go as deep as I could.”
Vargas got through six innings, then gave up back-to-back singles to open the seventh inning.
Bad, but it was even worse than that. Fielding a single in right field, Ichiro Suzuki tried to throw Desmond Jennings out at third base, and when his throw was wild, Jennings scored and Jose Lobation took second base.
It was the perfect scenario for letting a close game get away.
Leading 2-1, manager Eric Wedge went to a bullpen where Lucas Luetge and Josh Kinney were unavailable — and everyone but Shawn Kelley had pitched 24 hours earlier.
Kelley hadn’t only because he was sick, so Wedge went to him first. But before the right-hander threw a pitch, the manager called his infield to the mound and talked bunt.
“You can never be certain, but in that situation I wanted everyone aware where they should be, what they should do,” Wedge said.
So what happened?
Tampa shortstop Sean Rodriguez dropped a great bunt — but Kelley pounced on it and threw him out, getting one out while Lobation advanced.
Kelley then got B.J. Upton to pop up for the second out, and was replaced by Oliver Perez for a lefty-on-lefty matchup with Carlos Pena.
Pena struck out.
“Our bullpen has done that kind of job all year and those guys were fantastic again,” Vargas said.
The admiration was mutual.
“Jason got us into the seventh,” Tom Wilhelmsen said. “From there, Shawn Kelley, Oliver Perez and Brandon League got it to the ninth.”
That part of this game wasn’t unusual.
Through 96 games, the Mariners bullpen has worked 282 innings — just under three per game — and produced a 3.06 earned run average.
When Wilhelmsen blew through a 1-2-3 ninth inning for his ninth save, it pushed Seattle’s road record to 24-28, 4-2 on this seven game trip.
That they won was somewhat astonishing.
They started a first-inning rally with two outs, and loaded the bases on a single sandwiched between walks, bringing up Saunders to face right-handed pitcher Alex Cobb.
Saunders approach? Try not to kill a pitch, just hit it solidly. He did that, lining an opposite-field single over shortstop to score Casper Wells and John Jaso.
And that was all the run-scoring the Mariners would do.
“Our job was to make it stand up, and we did,” Vargas said.
Good thing, because the Mariners hitters did some regressing Saturday.
“As good as we were in Kansas City, we’ve actually gotten away from some of the things that led to a lot of our success,” Wedge said. “When we get in trouble, it’s pretty consistent — you’re taking pitches that you need to be hacking at and you’re swinging through breaking balls in the dirt or high fastballs.
“It’s the big leagues. We’ve got to be better than that. Swinging at breaking balls is one thing, but balls that start out and look good but end up in the dirt?
“You’ve got to recognize that.”
The Mariners did manage eight hits — one more than the Rays — but Jaso and Carlos Peguero shared half of those, and all eight Seattle hits were singles.
On this night, it was enough, and Vargas reached something of a milestone. This was his 10th win of the season, matching his career high. A year ago, he won his 10th game in Seattle’s 160th game of the season.
“Nicer to win it today instead of on the last day of the year,” Vargas said. “Hopefully, I’ll win a few more.”
Now 3-0 with a 1.77 ERA in his past five starts, Vargas will have appeal at the trading deadline. No, he’s not Felix Hernandez, but in games he’s started after a Seattle loss, the Mariners are 10-3.