By Larry LaRue The News Tribune
SEATTLE —Now, the Seattle Mariners can begin answering the question everyone asked in spring training — just how much better are they in 2012 than they were a year ago.
Getting a pair of runs from their offense and another superbly pitched game from their staff, the Mariners beat the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday, 2-1.
The victory was their 67th, matching the season total from 2011.
With 24 games to play, every win they pick up now will be concrete evidence of improvement, inarguable proof they are have made progress.
“Sure it’s meaningful,” closer Tom Wilhelmsen said. “We’ve matched that number and have the chance to keep momentum, to add on. The past is past — we’re looking forward.”
It was a typically played and managed Mariners win — low on runs scored, high on the number of pitchers used, short on fans.
A Safeco Field crowd of 13,037 watched Kevin Millwood pitch six innings, allowing only a run, then saw Eric Wedge parade five relievers to the mound during the final three innings to preserve a win.
The offense had another blink-and-you-missed it nights, this one against journeyman right-hander Aaron Cook.
Two fourth-inning singles and a walk loaded the bases with no one outs, and with one out Dustin Ackley grounded a single up the middle to score two runs.
The Mariners never came close to scoring again. Thanks to their pitching, they didn’t need to.
“Millwood pitched a good game, made his pitches,” Wedge said. “The bullpen was fantastic. Every guy came in and did his job.”
Stephen Pryor, Charlie Furbush, Josh Kinney, Lucas Luetge — those four got were the bridge through the seventh and eighth innings to Wilhelmsen in the ninth.
And there, the man who has been a stunning success since taking the closing job in June trotted in with a one-run lead — and walked the first batter he faced.
“I felt locked in to that first batter, I just threw balls,” Wilhelmsen said. “I put the tying run on and things seemed more exciting.”
From second base, Ackley watched Wilhelmsen’s game change.
“It was like he flipped a switch,” Ackley said. “Tom couldn’t have run up there and placed his pitches any better. He was really nasty.”
The next three Red Sox hitters went down in order — strike out, strike out, ground out.
It was Wilhelmsen’s 24th save and Millwood’s fifth win. The big veteran right-handed start has 10 no decisions in 2012, and ranks third on the team with 14 quality starts.
As in most every game he’s pitched, Millwood had a razor’s edge advantage — 2-0 this time. Unlike too many other starts, this time he and his bullpen held on.
Ackley, considered the most promising young hitter in the Mariners system a year ago, will wake up this morning batting .232. He has 48 RBI, in part because of his numbers with the bases loaded.
“Someone just told me I’m six-for-six this season with the bases loaded and less than two outs,” Ackley said. “Given the kind of season I’ve had, I didn’t expect the numbers to be that good.
“I impressed myself. I wish I’d had more than six at-bats in that situation.”
Asked about the Mariners 67th win, Ackley talked about the team’s improvement.
“We had a tough first half, we’re having a good second half,” he said. “We’re better than we were a year ago. We’re better than we were earlier this season.
“That’s exciting for all of us.”
And his own year?
“I’m happy with my defense at second base, because that was always the question about my game,” Ackley said. “I know I can hit. Now I know I can play second base, too.”
The lessons this team has learned may not have come fast enough to please its fans, and a fourth-place American League West finish seems all but assured.
Still, with 24 games left to play — and the second best record in the league (31-20) since the All-Star break — it’s not impossible to envision a 12-12 finish.
That would get the Mariners to 79 wins, a marked jump from 2011.
“There’s no one number we’re looking at, we want to win ’em all,” Wilhelmsen said.