By Larry LaRue The News Tribune
SEATTLE — They’re not going to win the pennant and they might not be able to avoid finishing fourth in the American League West, but the Seattle Mariners are feeling — and playing — like winners.
Behind the tough pitching of Jason Vargas and the bullpen, the Mariners went into the ninth inning tied at 2-2, loaded the bases and unleashed John Jaso upon the Minnesota Twins.
Fly ball, run scored. Mariners win 3-2 — their fourth win in a row and 11th in the past 12 games at Safeco Field.
“When you’ve got guys like Felix (Hernandez), Vargas and a bullpen where everybody seems to throw 95 mph-plus, you play a lot of close games,” shortstop Brendan Ryan said. “We’re learning to win those games.”
Hard-fought all night, the game went 2-1 in favor of Minnesota in the top of the seventh inning, only to be tied again at 2 when Justin Smoak hit a long home run into the left-center field bullpen.
“I hit it as well as I can hit it, but I wasn’t sure it was going out — not in that part of the park, so I was in full sprint mode out of the box,” Smoak said, then smiled. “Not that anyone could tell.”
It was Smoak’s team-leading 14th home run.
In the ninth, it came to a battle of bullpens with the bases loaded. The Mariners used three pitchers that inning, Stephen Pryor, Lucas Luetge and, with the bases jammed with Twins, closer Tom Wilhelmsen.
Wilhelmsen came in to face Josh Willingham. Someone asked if he had any particular concern.
“Yeah,” Wilhelmsen deadpanned. “A home run.”
Willingham, who has 31 of those, popped up on the second pitch and the game went to the bottom of the ninth.
There, a Safeco Field crowd of 21,154 got the inning it had waited all night for, a gritty rally, Seattle style.
Michael Saunders — in a 4-for-49 slump — singled to open the inning. Brendan Ryan, trying to bunt Saunders over, laid down a beauty — and first baseman Justin Morneau’s throw was late.
Two on, no one out.
Dustin Ackley, with three hits and an RBI already, tried to bunt and fouled off two. Down in the count, he stayed alive, taking bad pitches, fouling off good ones, and drew the walk that loaded the bases with no one out.
The Twins went to Tyler Robertson, an effective lefty. The Mariners went to Jaso.
“We had a pinch-hitting situation in the eighth inning with a man on second and two outs, and Eric (Wedge) used Eric Thames,” Jaso said. “If they send me up, they walk me. Coming off the bench, all you hope for is the chance to get a swing or two in.
“Last year in Tampa, I pinch hit in the sixth inning — the first guy off the bench. This season, I’m being saved for the ninth inning and I think I’m more effective for it.”
Jaso flied to left field, medium-deep. Deep enough?
“With Saunders on third base, I thought it was,” Jaso said.
He thought right — and the Mariners improved to 57-64, now 29-30 at Safeco Field.
Vargas got into the seventh inning having allowed two runs, then ran out of steam after 113 pitches. The Twins Scott Diamond went the same distance, 62⁄3 innings, and came out having allowed two runs.
“You saw two starters pitch well and really work tonight,” Wedge said. “Jason didn’t have his absolute best stuff, but without he got outs, he made pitches.”
The win went to Wilhelmsen (4-2), whose numbers since taking the closing job in late May are scary-good: 32 appearances, a 3-1 record with 17 saves in 18 attempts and an earned-run average of 1.01.
Similarly, Jaso has had a huge impact on the 2012 Mariners, especially since he didn’t play much early and continues to sit versus left-handed pitching.
Jaso has 12 game-winning RBI, including two to end games. Since the All-Star break, in 101 at-bats, he’s batting .378.
“We’re coming together as a team,” Jaso said. “We’re growing as a group. The year started with a lot of new guys, me included, and a lot of young guys. We’ve come a long way. I don’t mean we’re going to beat everybody, but we’re a much better team than we were.”
Since the All-Star break, the Mariners are 21-13 — a .618 winning percentage.